Because local journalists in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan are threatened with imprisonment and torture, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has developed into a haven for journalists. But in recent years independent journalism in Kyrgyzstan has increasingly been put to the test.
It was a performance worthy of Donald Trumps. Almasbek Atambayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, crowded together the journalists present at a press event that was meaningless in itself. Atambayev had personally felt slandered by preliminary reports about the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan in November. His reaction was correspondingly harsh.
Journalists who disseminate false information, the president said, would violate the law and would have to be held accountable. Because freedom, including freedom of the press, ends where it restricts the freedom of another.
An island of freedom of the press
The announcement and threat of Atambayev has explosive force. Kyrgyzstan is an island of freedom of the press in Central Asia – a region known for its repressive regimes and despots. Kyrgyzstan ranks 85th out of 180 countries in the press freedom ranking. Its neighbours Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, are regularly in the lower quarter.
Because Kyrgyzstan can work relatively undisturbed, many journalists from neighbouring countries have fled to the capital Bishkek in recent years. Like the Tajik Diana Rahmanova.
“Impossible to work in Tajikistan”
She has her office in the basement of a prefabricated building, an old tailor’s shop. Rahmanova, 27 years old, has lived in Bishkek since 2011. She has an international journalism education. In her native Tajikistan, she was unable to live up to the objectivity and diversity of sources she had learned.
“Here in Kyrgyzstan politicians understand that they are obliged to answer journalists’ questions. In Tajikistan people think that you as a journalist want something from me? Then follow me calmly! Many colleagues have been made impossible to work in Tajikistan, they have even been threatened. That’s why many people decided to work here.”
For critical journalists from Turkmenistan, working in their home country is virtually impossible. Torture, years in prison, even attacks on the family threaten.
Access to Western know-how
55-year-old Naz Nazar lives in exile in Germany and maintains contact with colleagues in Kyrgyzstan who work from there for Turkmen underground projects.
“Bishkek is like an island of freedom for the Turkmen. Turkmenistan is the most oppressed country in Central Asia. For the Turkmen, Bishkek means that they have access to information, to Western know-how. Then they will not be persecuted there because the Kyrgyz police are not interested in a few Turkmen who are there.”
Independent journalism put to the test
But also in Kyrgyzstan the freedom for journalists is shrinking. If after the coup d’état in 2010 one liked to be liberal, the government is now again becoming increasingly repressive, says Christopher Schwartz, lecturer for journalism at the American University in Bishkek. Even for foreign journalists it is becoming more uncomfortable …
“…because you can get into the focus of the Kyrgyz government: Either to be used as leverage in the clinch with neighbouring countries, or because the Kyrgyz government feels itself under attack, or because they fear independent media in general”.
Because independent journalism is currently also under scrutiny in the West, this crisis could also be used by Kyrgyzstan to control its own reporting more than before. Bad omens not only for the journalists from Central Asia who fled here – but also for their Kyrgyz colleagues themselves.
Kyrgyzstan (officially Kyrgyzstan Respublikasy, German Kyrgyzstan or Kyrgyzstan) is located in Central Asia. The former Soviet republic has an area of 199,900 km² and borders Kazakhstan in the north, Uzbekistan in the west, Tajikistan in the southwest and China in the southeast.
Kyrgyzstan is a high mountain country. About 50% of its surface is over 1 000 m, a third over 3 000 m above sea level. The highest mountain of the country is Pik Pobedy with 7 439 m. It rises in the mountains of Tienshan in the northeast, which beside this mountain also has the 6 995 m high Chan-Tengri. In the southwest of the country there are the Alai and Transalai mountains, which also have over 7,000 m high mountains. Valleys and basins extend between the mighty mountain ranges. The most important valleys are the Talas, Alai and Tschut valleys. The most important basins are the Issykkul and Fergana basins. The largest lake in the country is Issykkul in the north-east, which in Kyrgyz means “hot lake”. The 6,236 km² of runoff-less water is fed by hot springs and is therefore ice-free, although it lies at 1,608 m above sea level. The largest river in the country is the Naryn, which is the right source river of the Syrdarja (in ancient times Iaxartes). After 3 019 km it flows into the Aral Sea as a trickle. Several reservoirs, the largest of them the Toktogul with a 214 m high dam, are used for energy production and irrigation of the Fergana basin.
Kyrgyzstan is a parliamentary republic according to the 2010 constitution. The political system is a mixture of a parliamentary and a presidential system. The directly elected president (Almazbek Atambaev, since December 2011) has a number of important powers, including the appointment and dismissal of supreme judges and prosecutors general. He is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Chairman of the Security Council. The President has a six-year term (one-off re-election). However, the Prime Minister (Dschantörö Satybaldijew, since September 2012) and Parliament also hold strong positions.
- The legislative power lies with the unicameral parliament, the Supreme Council (Jogorku Kenesh). It consists of 120 deputies elected for five years.
- The Supreme Court is the highest authority in civil, criminal, administrative and commercial law.
- The administration is divided into seven areas (oblasts) and the capital district.
After setbacks in recent years, the economically poor country succeeded in reducing inflation and stabilizing the economy, although before the collapse of the Soviet Union up to 30% of the national budget was covered by Moscow and 90% of trade was with COMECON countries. Trade and services are the main engines of growth. Nevertheless, almost 40% of the population live below the poverty line, more in the south than in the north.
The services sector accounts for almost half of the gross domestic product (GDP). Agriculture accounts for one fifth of GDP. Goats, yak and cattle for fattening, among others, are kept on the 7% of the land on which agriculture is possible. Silkworm breeding has traditionally played an important role. Fruit and wine, poppies and vegetables, potatoes, sugar beet, cotton, cereals and tobacco are cultivated. Cotton, wool, meat and tobacco are the main products of agricultural exports.
The main industrial exports are gold, uranium and electricity produced in the country’s numerous river power stations. Small amounts of mercury, antimony and gold ores and marble are also mined in the country, which is poor in raw materials. The most important imported goods are crude oil and natural gas, machinery, chemical products and industrial goods.
The main customers are Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan; imports (mainly oil and gas, machinery and food) come largely from Russia, China and Kazakhstan.
There are international airports in Bishkek and Osh and shipping traffic on the Issykkul River. Currency is the Som (= 100 Tiin).