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IWPR: Lawsuits against media threaten freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan

Activists are warning of threats to the country’s media freedom after President Almazbek Atambayev filed a series of lawsuits against outlets for allegedly defaming him, the independent organization Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported.

Media professionals fear that the huge sums of money involved might lead to self-censorship, and say they are not convinced the courts will give them a fair hearing.

The Prosecutor General has demanded 20 million soms (285.000 US dollars) from Taalaigul Toktakunova, a lawyer for the opposition Ata Meken party and Radio Azattyk, and three million soms (43,000 dollars) from other defendants including Zanoza.kg, and 24.kg websites.

These are substantial sums in Kyrgyzstan, where the average monthly salary is about 200 dollars.

The President of Kyrgyzstan has made repeated public statements emphasising that journalists must be held liable for disseminating unreliable information. He added that Zanoza.kg and Radio Azattyk receive financing from the West meant that it would be easy for them to pay out these amounts.

Others, however, see his actions as a concerted attempt to intimidate independent media.

Kyrgyzstan is considered the most liberal country for freedom of speech in Central Asia, but in recent years the authorities have stepped up pressure on journalists and human rights defenders.

Media experts agree that publications need to verify facts and control the quality of information they publish, rather than serve as the vehicle of statements made by politicians. They argue, however, that the solution is industry self-regulation rather than multimillion lawsuits.