«Country residents should not be lulled into complacency by their so-called leadership in freedom of speech among Central Asian countries. These statements, by the way, have long been covered in dust. The country needs a new quantum leap», – notes media expert Azamat Tynaev, in his article for CABAR.asia.
Follow us on Facebook
Do we know our place?
It is easy to contemplate on the current state of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan in the language of statistics, as media experts usually do. The “Reporters Without Borders” ranking traditionally serves as the basis for the assessment. Kyrgyzstan ranks 83rd among 180 countries, thus improving its performance from 2018, when it occupied 98th place on the list. Note that the current ranking is also the best for all the time of World Press Freedom Index observations since 2002.
To compare, Kyrgyzstan experienced the worst press freedom environment in 2010, ranking 159th in the world. The ranking of each year is compiled based on the previous year’s results. Hence, we faced the most difficulties with freedom of speech in 2009, and we all remember and understand why. Besides, it was the year of the murder of the famous Kyrgyz journalist Gennady Pavlyuk (Ibrahim Rustambek).
In general, the level of freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan can be described as slowly growing, but the growth is W-shaped with fluctuating ups and downs. Kyrgyz journalists achieved a fundamentally qualitative improvement only recently – in 2014, for the first time since 2003, we managed to make our way out of the rating’s second hundred and since then have not dropped below. Although we dangerously stabilize our ranking, we again might refer to the last year when we found ourselves at a threatening 98th place.
The numbers do not explain everything
The ranking helps to determine only the general trends in the state of press freedom. For instance, American journalists and media professionals are puzzled over the reason why they ranked 48th in the latest Reporters Without Borders rating. And the rest of the world shares this perplexity since the United States is perceived as a country with powerful and independent media and strong traditions of freedom of speech.
Moreover, the methodology for compiling the index, although constantly improved and detailed, is based mainly on the individual perception of the respondents, whose assessments then add up to rating points.
Therefore, we will end referral to statistics here and will try to add more observations to review the current state of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan. Observations shall primarily regard issues of media quality and its influence rather than assessing its institutional status.
The main threat to the Kyrgyz press is its own conformity
It is surprising and inexplicable that under favorable media environment in Kyrgyzstan media organizations were not able to become a strong public institution of information and influence. Unfortunately, there are almost no editorial offices that aim to become truly powerful media agencies with a national agenda and simultaneously an independent information policy.
The lack of funding is not a strong justification for the current situation. At the very least, state-run television channels and the print press have had budgetary support for many years but their audience demand tends to zero. Private editorials are almost in vassal dependence on the founders and /or main sponsors. But even with relative confidence in their future, they strictly adhere to the unwritten rules of their patrons.
But we do not necessarily consider the political and financial dependence of media agencies when we talk about media conformity. How often did you hear the criticism of websites, newspapers and TV channels in copycatting each other – same news, headlines, info style? This is professional conformity – unwillingness to change, a box of habitual thinking, a change resistance.
What will indie journalism fix?
The prefix indie – means something independent, free of dogma and artificial framework. Independence is the best aggregative state of journalism when it can ideally fulfill its functions. In this sense, the press does not shape public opinion much as it reflects it. It grows as an accurate translator of the societal moods, the citizens’ assessment of the work of the authorities and future expectations.
Journalists can help the population in exercising civilian control over government actions only when they are trusted. But there is a trust crisis when it comes to media in Kyrgyzstan, and there is nothing surprising about this, given the global trend of negative attitude towards the media. Lack of trust in journalists leads to a lack of their possible impact, and without impact, journalism ceases to be journalism.
The situation that arose after the publication of the Radio Azattyk’s investigative material was very indicative. The investigation was on multimillion-dollar financial transactions and commercial activities of family members and partners of Raiymbek Matraimov, a former Kyrgyz custom official, whose name acquired an odious sound in society and is always accompanied by his corruption involvement speculations.
We should note two things that eloquently illustrate the assessment of the domestic media potential and their use of freedom of speech. After several months (since the publication of the first part of Azattyk’s investigation – editor’s note) from the release of Azattyk’s video material and despite the enormous public significance of the investigation topic, the reaction of state authorities turned out to be so sluggish that even the Kyrgyz society that got used to everything was discouraged.
In fact, several politicians responded with public support for Matraimov. What is even more shocking, the unexpected information attack on Radio Azattyk itself proceeded by well-known and well-established journalists. Right before that, these colleagues issued their counter-investigation formally expressing their concern for “purity of the genre”, but which turned out to be more like a bomb against Azattyk.
Besides, a number of politicians responded with public support for Matraimov. Even more shocking was the unexpected information attack on Radio Azattyk itself, which has taken over unexpectedly by well-known and even credible journalists. And before that, the same colleagues issued their counter-investigation formally explained by their concern for “purity of the genre”, but which turned out to be more like a bomb against Azattyk.
The demonization of media as a new type of censorship
But no matter what was behind the statement against Azattyk, which by the way was accused of lack of editorial transparency, it appeared on time and in many ways brought down the degree of interest in the content of investigation, led the public discussion significantly to the side and generated distrust in the RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service.
The Internet trolls terminated the case. Groups of anonymous accounts turned out to be numerous and active, clearly coordinated by certain control centers and, most likely, generously paid. A thorough study of this case is still waiting for its time and its researcher. An example of this anti-investigative campaign is vital for drafting recommendations to investigative journalists to equip them with knowledge and skills of anti-crisis behavior.
One can assume that journalists of Radio Azattyk expected certain pressure from Matraimov and the establishment representatives affiliated with him, up to physical threats and astronomical lawsuits. However, they were completely defenseless against cyber aggression, disinformation, manipulation, and use of “hate speech” by fake users.
“Freedom of Speech” vs Freedom of Speech
The prospect of further use of “hybrid” methods of discrediting the media in order to undermine public trust will undoubtedly resume. What the state’s repressive machine attempted over the years – buying the loyalty of journalists, using the brute force of organized crime groups against unwanted reporters – the network technologies of the local “troll factory” have almost succeeded in doing.
The sociocultural dominants of the Kyrgyz population are diverse, so are the alternative socio-political development options. How close will we be to a democratic state and open society, or vice versa, will we return to a totalitarian or clerical system? The model we might follow is almost unpredictable.
Still weak and short-lived traditions of national journalism leave doubts as to whether we can turn our media into that powerful public institution, and not give up the information field to state or external propaganda, the commercial mainstream and populist media.
What did you do in 2019?
This is another important question to raise because within the framework of this article we did not touch upon the media literacy aspect. The low level of media literacy within the population, as another key to understanding the general situation with freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan, is essential enough at least to be introduced. The current goal of our journalists should be the following: making their audience the customer of change, turn to face its vital interests, perceive an audience as constructive critics of the media work, collaboratively increase their critical thinking and instill a taste for authentic journalism.
In conclusion, in order not to exaggerate and not leave readers feeling hopeless, it should be noted that generally, the situation with media functioning in our country remains more encouraging than pessimistic. The pluralism of opinions, the ability of the media to be truly independent, the potential for resistance to state censorship, yet not draconian media laws, and infrastructure conditions all indicate that.
That said, Kyrgyzstan should not stop there, and country residents should not be lulled into complacency by their so-called leadership in freedom of speech among Central Asian countries. Those statements have long been covered in dust. The country needs a new quantum leap. Instead of comparing itself with the countries behind, Kyrgyzstan should look up to the countries that have gone far ahead in the development and protection of press freedom. Kyrgyzstan needs a new level of audience trust and proactive ability to influence processes in society and the state.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.