|Under international pressure to maintain Kyrgyzstan's supposed commitment
to a free press, President Askar Akayev battled unsuccessfully with the
parliament over a draft amendment to the criminal code to remove criminal
libel statutes, limiting punishment of this offense to the civil code. He
also called for a referendum on a constitutional amendment to guarantee greater
freedom of speech. On October 17, voters elected to amend the constitution
to state that "the parliament shall pass no law that restricts freedom of
speech or of the press." While such an amendment to the constitution --
especially one supported by the population -- is a positive sign, it alone
cannot save Kyrgyzstan's waning reputation as "an island of democracy in
a sea of authoritarian Central Asian states."
On January 8, the National Agency for Communications (NAC) announced that
all of the country's television and radio stations would have to reapply
for frequency licenses. Barely a month passed before accusations were flying
regarding the NAC's alleged political biases. In one example, the agency
ordered Radio Almaz to stop broadcasting for "technical reasons," although
the director of the station believed the order was linked to the programming,
which included broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Liberty. The station
was allowed to resume broadcasting on a temporary basis beginning in March.
According to Article 8 of the Law on Media, a station can only be closed
down by a decision of the founders or by a court decision.
Journalists who have taken a critical stance on government policies have
been the target of legal action and physical violence.
The political pressure on journalists is compounded by the government's use
of fees and taxation to squeeze the media. The long list of taxes on newspapers
and broadcast outlets includes value-added tax, advertising tax, income tax,
social fund tax, and import/export tax. In some cases, these onerous levies
represent more than 50 percent of revenue for struggling newspapers, or radio
and television stations.