In a partial change of heart, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has advised his top prosecutor to withdraw a libel lawsuit against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk.
Atambayev issued his instructions on May 12, six weeks after he met in Bishkek with the US-funded broadcaster’s chief executive, Tom Kent.
“In the time that has elapsed since the meeting, a positive trend has been noted in the activities of Azattyk, which has been producing more balanced and considered radio and print coverage,” the president’s office said in a statement.
Independent news website Zanoza.kg — which was the other target of the five lawsuits, worth a total of 30 million som ($440,000), filed for what the General Prosecutor’s Office said was libelous reporting about Atambayev — does not look likely to benefit from any such reprieve.
General Prosecutor Indira Djoldubayeva announced her office was filing the suits on March 9 in response to the two media outlets spreading “false information” about Atambayev. The allegations were related to reports of allegations of corruption first aired by jailed opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev.
The presidential administration is making little secret of two revelations of this episode.
One is that the General Prosecutor’s Office, despite supposedly acting independently of the president, takes direct instructions from the head of state. On paper, Atambayev only made recommendations, however, which is how his supporters may argue he has remained within the law.
The presidential administration is also taking great pleasure in noting how the lawsuits have had a chilling effect on independent reporting in the country.
“The legal cases have revived … the ongoing discussion about the quality of journalists’ work and the need to revise some of the commonplaces that led to the discrediting of [the idea of] freedom of speech,” Atambayev’s office said.
The discussion about the limits of freedom of speech, however, has been primarily fanned by the president’s underlings and proxies.
While it is true that Kyrgyz media is awash with rumor-mongering posing as reporting, it is also a fact that a great deal of that kind of unsubstantiated mud-slinging takes place on media outlets either run by or friendly to the state, where it is usually directed at the opposition and other critics of the government. Atambayev is not known to have taken issue with ethical and professional shortcomings in state media.
The presidentially approved lawsuits had drawn criticism from such groups as Washington-based advocacy organization Freedom House, which described the cases as “politically motivated.”
“The government of Kyrgyzstan is directly attacking the very institutions necessary for the country’s democratic development. Freedom House urges the authorities of Kyrgyzstan to cease persecution of independent media and human rights defenders who express dissenting views,” the group said in a May 3 statement.
Perhaps most happily for Atambayev, with prosecutors dropping the Azattyk lawsuit, he will no longer have to follow through on pledges made at an April 7 speech in which he promised to take up the matter in unspecified international courts and even discuss it with U.S. President Donald Trump.