As the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections approached, President Askar Akayev and his allies used restrictive laws and politicized government agencies to crack down on opposition voices and the country's few remaining independent media outlets.
The Central Election Commission amended election law in January to bar foreign media from publishing or broadcasting "agitation" and "election propaganda"—terms it did not define but left open for prosecution. The move broadened the commission's ability to restrict election coverage by radio services such as the BBC and the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), as well as by publications such as Moscow's Moskovsky Komsomolets (The Moscow Komsomol), Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), and Rossiiskaya Gazeta (The Russian Gazette).
Government officials filed dozens of politically motivated criminal and civil defamation lawsuits against journalists and media outlets in an effort to silence critics, according to the Bishkek-based Public Association of Journalists. Kyrgyzstan's obedient courts, whose judges are appointed on the recommendation of the president, consistently convicted journalists of insulting the honor and dignity of government officials. Hefty financial penalties in these cases encouraged widespread self-censorship. In May, Parliament rejected a proposal to decriminalize defamation and set damage limits in libel cases.
In its broad campaign to silence independent voices, the government used an array of indirect methods—from politicized tax inspections to leaning on independent media advertisers. It also forced teachers and government employees to subscribe to state newspapers, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
Media analysts say Akayev, in power since 1991, has direct or indirect control over most influential television stations. The president appoints the chairman of the state-owned Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Broadcast Corporation, and his son-in-law owns the Kyrgyz Public Educational Radio and Television.
The leading independent television station, Pyramida, remained on the defensive throughout 2004. The National Communications Agency (GAS), the government broadcast regulator, closed Pyramida for 40 days in March for what the agency described as transmission problems. However, Pyramida's weekly political show "Nashe Vremya" (Our Time) had recently angered authorities by providing airtime to opposition leaders. Areopag, a telecommunications company with close ties to Akayev, bought a significant number of shares in Pyramida in August, IWPR reported.
In another move critics said was politically motivated, GAS forced Osh TV to broadcast on a weaker frequency after claiming that the channel was interfering with state TV transmissions. Based in the southern city of Osh, the station is one of the few independent channels in Kyrgyzstan, taking both the government and opposition leaders to task.
Media analysts were surprised this summer when authorities quickly granted a broadcasting license and frequency to NTS, a new Bishkek-based television channel funded by the Russian energy company Alyans. Some analysts suggest that the station may be part of a Russian effort to counter NATO's growing influence in Central Asia, the news Web site Eurasianet.org reported. NTS had not started broadcasting at year's end.
The independent daily MSN (formerly Moya Stolitsa-Novosti), which has endured government harassment and numerous politically motivated lawsuits, published more freely in 2004 thanks to the opening of a U.S.-sponsored independent printer. Freedom House, a nonprofit group that promotes democracy worldwide, established the publishing house in late 2003, breaking the monopoly of the state printer, Uchkun, which often refused to print the Bishkek-based MSN.
In May, Freedom House and other human rights organizations completed an independent inquiry into the death of Ernis Nazalov, a correspondent with the Bishkek daily Kyrgyz Ruhu (Kyrgyz Spirit) whose body was found on the bank of a canal in the southern Kara-Suu District in September 2003.
Medical experts who examined Nazalov's body found that he had been hit several times with a blunt object, one of his arms had been broken, and his legs were covered in stab wounds, the groups reported. The regional prosecutor's office in the southern city of Osh classified Nazalov's death as an accidental drowning.