Government, Politics and Regulation

Photo by Hector Martinez

When Almazbek Atambaev was president of Kyrgyzstan, journalists didn’t have a whale of a time. The country’s head often harassed media outlets by threatening them with lawsuits and financial audits. Fearing reprisals, many journalists routinely self-censored.

Things are much improved after Sooronbay Jeenbekov won the presidential elections in 2017. Pressures on independent media and journalists from government and politicians have lost intensity. Tax inspections are less frequent.

However, “many media in Kyrgyzstan maintain their fealty to the President’s Office and the Government, closely following the government’s editorial policy and rhetoric,” according to the new report Government, Politics and Regulation: Kyrgyzstan, published by CMDS and Promotank Research Institute, an independent think-tank in Kyrgyzstan.

Gulnura Toralieva, the report’s author explains that, as a habit, authorities do not exert pressures on media in the first two years of their mandate, focusing first on strengthening their positions of power. Journalists thus expect Mr Jeenbekov to start harassing media and human rights defenders later during his term. “[…] Not knowing what to expect from the newly elected authorities, they [journalists] choose to tread gingerly,” Ms Toralieva wrote.

According to the report, three people hold much of the power in the country’s media policy: the head of the President’s Office, Dosaly Esenaliev, the head of Press Service of the President, Tolgonai Stamalieva, and the brother of the President, Asylbek Jeenbekov. The three have the decisive power over key staff appointments at the country’s public broadcast outlet KTRK and have a big say in the broadcaster’s news agenda. Helped by large informal groups of bloggers and trolls, they work “to promote the positive image of the President and his decisions on social networks and controlled online media.

Civil society organizations have strengthened their influence in the media, the report says. Authorities have become very responsive to criticism from civil society, regularly reacting to statements put forward by local NGOs. Foreign donor organizations are an important key player in the Kyrgyz media thanks to their financial support, which is desperately needed by many outlets in the country, according to the report, which is the first attempt to map the key influencers in Kyrgyzstan’s media policy field.

Funding Journalism

Photo by Travis Essinger

That media outlets in Kyrgyzstan take informal payments from politicians and state officials is not a secret anymore. The list includes prime ministers, mayors, MPs, current and former presidents. They sponsor content in their own media outlet, if they have one, or pay journalists from other news outfits to cover the topics they need to be covered. Some of them even fund websites that crank out bunkum about their enemies.

Examples of spineless journalists taking money to spin content are found everywhere. But in Kyrgyzstan, informal payments are one of the three major sources of financing the media. The other two are the state budget and advertising.

But it is informal payments and the state money that keep most of the media afloat in the country, an environment totally unconducive to independent reporting, the report issued by the Center for Media, Data & Society (CMDS) and Promotank, a think-tank in Kyrgyzstan, shows.

The Kyrgyz government spent in excess of US$ 10m on media in 2018, the equivalent of roughly half the advertising market in the country, according to the report’s estimates. That includes US$ 7.6m allocated directly from the government budget, three-quarters of which goes to the flagship broadcaster KTRK, as well as cash from state-owned companies, mainly banks and mining firms.

An overly dominant position of the government in the media harms the country’s journalism in many ways,” wrote Gulnura Toralieva, the report’s author.

First, the reliance on government cash forces media outlets to become biased in their reporting. KTRK, Kyrgyzstan’s state broadcaster, simply propagates state policies. Second, disproportionately large government spending in the media discourages investments in journalism and clobbers attempts to innovate and experiment with journalistic formats. Finally, lack of a strategic plan to fund the country’s media only destroys the efficiency of the sector.

Philanthropy and foreign news media are left to tip the balance. But that is hardly enough.

The contribution from philanthropic donors is only sufficient to keep a couple of news outlets in business. Philanthropies spent in ten years less than what the Kyrgyz government spent in one year. The news output from some Western governments-funded broadcasters, such as BBC or Azattyk (a U.S.-supported service), helps enrich the overall news offering. But even some of these broadcasters, intimidated by the Kyrgyz government, are visibly restraining their criticism.

Only the internet could provide the solution. Kloop is a good example. But it’s only one of a few independent outlets and relies heavily on donor money. Moreover, many politicians are also busy funding and taking over internet media.

It becomes clearer,” the report concludes, “that the biggest challenge for Kyrgyzstan’s independent media in the near future will be to build a business model that would allow them to operate independently, grow their audience and compete in an overly politicized market.

A tall order for sure.

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