Amid political turmoil around Kyrgyzstan’s annulled parliamentary elections from October, Kyrgyzstan’s media sector has been impacted heavily – from self-censorship to physical attacks on journalists. In this blog post, Vittoria Zanellati – EPD Project Coordinator for the Kyrgyzstan Media Dialogue project – explains what’s happening and what the project is doing to support media actors at this critical time for the country’s democracy.
Media freedom and pluralism in Kyrgyzstan
“Better, but could do even better”, says Reporters Without Borders with regards to freedom of the press in Kyrgyzstan. Despite boasting a reputation as a Central Asian country with a rather pluralistic media landscape, structural concerns in the media sector have hampered the ability of Kyrgyzstan’s media organisations to become a strong public institution of information and influence, impenetrable to political interests and polarisation. Investigative journalism is still underdeveloped due to the difficulties in accessing information and the great deal of harassment journalists face, which often leads to self-censorship among journalists. This trend is further exacerbated by deficiencies in media education, a weak economic status of media workers and a lack of trust of citizens in the media. In addition, a large number of media houses compete within a small and poorly regulated advertising market, and rely on politically driven investments as well as some minimal donor grants.
On the eve of new elections, such weaknesses make media actors particularly vulnerable towards contributing to an informed yet constructive, non-violent electoral debate and from playing their role as a democratic watchdog
On the eve of new elections, such weaknesses make media actors particularly vulnerable towards contributing to an informed yet constructive, non-violent electoral debate and from playing their role as a democratic watchdog. This is particularly noteworthy as past elections in Kyrgyzstan were marked by significant turmoil and underlined the key role that the promotion of media pluralism and sustainable freedom of expression could play in mitigating political destabilisation ahead of electoral competition. This would require substantial reforms addressing structural concerns in the media sector, bringing media legislation in line with international freedom of expression standards, improving professionalisation of journalists and promoting the use of safe digital technologies, as well as encouraging the economic independence of media actors.
How we strengthen the media sector in Kyrgyzstan
It is against this backdrop that in December 2019 the European Partnership for Democracy launched the EU-funded Media Dialogue project to harness the power of the media in safeguarding conflict-free elections in Kyrgyzstan. It does so by improving the policy and legal environment affecting the media sector, and supporting media actors in playing a stabilisation role as reliable relays of information throughout the 2020 electoral cycle.
Since its launch, the project regularly engages media representatives along with decision-makers and civil society representatives in a policy dialogue about the challenges affecting the media sector. But this has not been without difficulties. Although the crackdown on the media that preceded the 2017 presidential elections is long over, many steps are still needed to ensure the right to freedom of expression in the country.
A restrictive legal environment enables the government to target dissent, online and offline, while legal protections for journalists have been weakened, and the situation for access to information has deteriorated. Throughout 2020, mirroring the trend of restrictions fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, a set of legal initiatives have threatened freedom of expression and negatively affected the media’s operating environment in the run-up to the October poll – such as the Law on Manipulation of Information, the Law on TV and Radio Broadcasting, and the NGO law. Amidst fears that this restrictive trend would have continued under the future mandate of a new Parliament, the Media Dialogue project facilitated the drafting by representatives of the media sector of a Freedom of Speech Agreement, which was signed by political parties running in the parliamentary elections in a commitment to interact with the media sector to protect freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan.
In an effort to create a more conducive environment for the October poll and the post-electoral period, the Media Dialogue project has delivered capacity-building activities to help media actors supply accurate election-related content. Moreover, we have supported the production of media election-related outputs by giving out grants for creative and socially beneficial media and advocacy projects. Additionally, we conducted workshops and advocacy activities to prevent hate speech directed towards media workers, decision-makers, politicians and parliamentary candidates. In this regard, we have supported the drafting of a Memorandum of Understanding with principles guiding the parties’ behaviour during the electoral campaign, including a commitment to avoid hate speech, which was eventually signed by 13 out of 16 running parties.
What now, after the annulled parliamentary elections?
On the heels of the government’s inaction in the corruption customs case and its mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, there were growing frustrations and pessimism among citizens about Kyrgyzstan’s political leadership. Parliamentary elections were held on 4 October amidst allegations of vote-buying and abuse of administrative resources, leading to large-scale protests upon declaration of the results and the subsequent invalidation of results by the Central Election Commission.
During the parliamentary elections and the protests that followed, 20 attacks on journalists were registered, which went unnoticed by law enforcement agencies. Amidst recent threats to freedom of speech, Media Dialogue has taken steps to boost the safety of independent media outlets and their resilience during the period of instability after the annulled parliamentary election. We continue to protect journalists’ rights in the courts through legal support and have started to offer safety and risk assessment training to reporters and journalists involved in covering public events where crowds gather, as well as training sessions on digital safety and cyber security, in order to provide interested journalists with technological and behavioural mitigation tools relevant to coping with troll attacks. We also continue to strengthen the skills of journalists, editors, and mediators on conflict-sensitive journalism, thereby equipping them with knowledge about a conflict-sensitive approach to reporting. More importantly, we continue to advocate for dialogue between the media and the authorities, in order to tackle the growing challenges affecting the media sector and to protect media freedom in light of post-election developments.
These steps seem more needed than ever as we write this article. A new Constitution draft was proposed in mid-November, which might be subject to a referendum on 10 January. The document includes several elements that could seriously harm freedom of speech in the country and that will further threaten the establishment of an operating environment in which the media feel they can work in an unrestrained way. Whilst conducting legal analysis of these constitutional amendments, Media Dialogue is supporting the organisation of regular meetings with chief editors, civil society representatives, digital activists and legal experts to raise awareness on the challenges that the proposed text would pose to media freedom and to discuss avenues to protect freedom of speech and, more broadly, democratic values in the country.