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Media freedom trampled amid clashes between protesters and government

Censorship of independent media feeds discontent; protesters take over government.
Censorship of independent media feeds discontent; protesters take over government.

via AP

Massive protests have overthrown the government of Kyrgyzstan today after thousands of protesters enraged over state corruption, increases in utility prices and restrictions on the flow of information stormed government buildings and looted state-run radio and television headquarters in the capital, Bishkek, say news reports. At least 41 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes with police. In recent months, the government has retaliated against independent media for reporting on widespread anti-government protests, for being critical of the government, and for covering other politically sensitive issues, report the Kyrgyzstan-based Public Association Journalists (PAJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Discontent has been simmering for weeks and finally erupted in the capital today, reports PAJ. In the recent unrest, police used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and concussion grenades on protesters, reports the Associated Press (AP). AP and Human Rights Watch say protesters retaliated, including throwing Molotov cocktails and setting police cars on fire. At least 10 opposition leaders were arrested. In the city of Naryn, 3,000 protesters seized the regional administration building and installed an opposition activist as the new governor. Access to the Internet was disabled in some areas and opposition activists have been arrested. Opposition activists claim 100 have been killed.

Authorities intimidated broadcasters to end critical programming, blocked access to alternative news online and suspended independent newspapers. Thirteen Kyrgyz media organisations released a statement last month saying the blocking of independent news sources is a "coordinated attempt to deprive Kyrgyz citizens of information covering the major events which occur in the country," reports PAJ. Dozens of activists, opposition politicians, and members of parliament and youth and media organisations protested restrictions on the media in the capital on 15 March.

On 10 March, several radio and television stations across the country dropped programming from the Kyrgyz service of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), also known as Radio Azattyk. Authorities had threatened to revoke their licenses if they did not comply. Radio Azattyk recently reported on money-laundering charges filed in Italy against a businessman with investments in Kyrgyzstan and connections to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's family. The report prompted calls for Bakiyev's resignation. Radio Azattyk's website is also inaccessible.

Independent news websites known for being critical of government policies have been blocked since 10 March. They include the leading information portal, whose editor Gennady Pavlyuk was murdered last December, reports RSF. On 1 April, police raided the offices of a Web-based independent television channel, Stan TV, and seized its computers, while authorities sealed the outlet's premises, reports CPJ. "This is a revenge for our reports about the opposition, for our reporting about what is really happening in the country," said Stan TV's editor.

Three independent newspapers were suspended last month. Two of these papers were shut down on 18 March for carrying an article written by an exile opposition activist that accused the government and President of corruption, nepotism and failure to engage in urgent social and economic concerns, says CPJ. The court found the two newspapers guilty of libelling the President. Prosecutors have demanded that they each pay US$112,000, says CPJ. This fine will encourage self-censorship in the media and severely threaten the newspapers' survival.

Newspapers publishing statements by the opposition calling for President Bakiev's removal were also targeted. On 15 March, police confiscated 7,000 copies of the opposition newspaper "Forum" and briefly detained its editor and five other journalists, reports RSF. The newspaper was suspended at the end of the month. Also, editors of two other opposition newspapers were called in for questioning about recent articles on 16 March.

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