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Wave of brutal attacks shocks Kyrgyz journalists

BBC Central Asia correspondent Rayhan Demytrie reports on how the murder of journalist Gennady Pavluk and brutal attacks on other reporters are sending shockwaves across Kyrgyzstan's media.

Gennady Pavluk. Image courtesy of Olga Kolosova
Gennady Pavluk often criticised the Kyrgyz government

Sitting in a dim corner of a coffee shop in central Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Olga Kolosova is holding back her tears.

"I could not believe what had happened until I saw him in the hospital," she said.

"I was hoping until the very last moment that there was some kind of a mistake."

But there was not.

Her partner of eight years, Gennady Pavluk, was lying unconscious in a hospital in Almaty, a city in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

The journalist had been thrown from the sixth floor of an apartment block with his hands and feet tied together.

He died several days later, still in a coma.

Gennady Pavluk's death sent shockwaves through the media and Kyrgyz society.

People here are no strangers to reports of the harassment and intimidation of journalists.

But no-one quite expected such a brutal murder.

Mr Pavluk was a well-known correspondent who was often critical of the government.

In the months leading up to his death, he had been associated with an opposition leader and was in the process of setting up a newspaper.

Threats and attacks

The Kyrgyz opposition claims that more than 60 journalists have been attacked, threatened, intimidated or killed since 2006.

But the government disputes these figures and says most attacks on journalists are not related to their profession.

In a recent speech to a parliamentary committee, Kyrgyzstan's Interior Minister Moldomoso Kongantiyev said that in the past five years 31 attacks have been registered, and most incidents were robberies or hooliganism.

Eleven of those cases have since been shelved by the police.

Among them is an inquiry into an attack in March 2009 on Syrgak Abdyldayev, who worked for independent newspaper Reporter-Bishkek.

He narrowly escaped death after a group of unknown attackers broke both his arms and stabbed him in the buttocks more than 20 times.

Syrgak Abdyldayev  (Image: www.ferghana.ru)
Syrgak Abdyldayev was badly injured (Image: Ferghana.ru)

After receiving further death threats he left the country.

"We don't know who carried out the attack, and most likely we will never find out, but we are inclined to think that it was pro-governmental structures or politicians," says Sultan Kanazarov, the co-founder of Reporter-Bishkek.

The newspaper is temporarily out of circulation because of financial difficulties.

"From the first edition of our newspaper we knew that something could potentially happen. We were getting ready for law suits or tax inspections. But when that happened to Syrgak we were all in a state of shock," said Mr Kanazarov.

Although the government denies any links to attacks on journalists, others think there can be no other reason.

"Journalists who criticise the government get harassed and threatened," said Asiya Sasikbayeva, who runs an NGO in Kyrgyzstan.

"One journalist who published an article about the president's nephew had to leave the country because she feared for her life."

Beaten and robbed

Aleksand Knyazev, a political analyst, was severely beaten and robbed in early December 2009 in Bishkek.

The incident happened just a few days after Mr Knyazev's meeting with the former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev in Moscow.

"They stole my bag which had documents and my laptop," Mr Knyazev said.

"They were not interested in my wallet or mobile phone. Maybe they thought I was carrying out money to pay for another revolution," he joked.

We are very sorry about what happened to Gennady Pavluk. We are co-operating with the Kazakh police which is investigating the case
Ilim Karipbekov
Kyrgyz Presidential Secretariat

The growing number of alleged attacks on journalists - and especially the case of Gennady Pavluk - has drawn international attention to the issue of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the EU and the US have all expressed concern over continuing attacks on journalists and opposition politicians in the country.

But Ilim Karipbekov, from the Kyrgyz Presidential Secretariat, says the government is taking all necessary measures to ensure that every case is thoroughly investigated.

"We are very sorry about what happened to Gennady Pavluk," he said. "We are co-operating with the Kazakh police which is investigating the case.

"It is in our interest because we are aware that such reports could reflect negatively on our country."

'Nail in the coffin'

Once referred to as "island of democracy" in central Asia, the country has recently been downgraded by the Washington-based rights watchdog Freedom house to "not free".

Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power in 2005 after the country underwent the so-called Tulip Revolution - mass protests that ousted the country's previous leader, Askar Akayev.

Mr Bakiyev promised to implement democratic reforms and end widespread corruption.

But instead of democratisation, critics say President Bakiyev's government has curbed free speech and became increasingly repressive.

There are still several opposition newspapers in the country, but a number have fallen foul of libel laws in recent years, and were forced to close.

Foreign broadcast media such as Radio Free Europe and the BBC Kyrgyz Service are allowed to operate, but most local TV and radio stations never criticise the president or his administration.

Sultan Kanazarov says that in today's Kyrgyzstan it is safer to write about celebrities and showbusiness than raise serious socio-economic issues.

"All these incidents are affecting the freedom of speech and increasing self-censorship among journalists," he said. "Gennady Pavluk's murder was the last nail in the coffin for journalism in Kyrgyzstan."



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