Kyrgyzstan’s coronavirus lockdown and curfew have brought major changes to how extensively local journalists can work in the Central Asian country, generally ranked as the most open for media in the region. Most independent media outlets still have not received government accreditation or permits that would allow them to move freely around the capital city of Bishkek or other now-restricted areas. As a result, getting information out of officials has become a tough assignment.
That difficulty extends to the Bishkek headquarters for the Kyrgyz government’s battle against COVID-19. Currently, the facility is the only official institution that distributes information about this topic. But it comes only once a day, and, like any press release, is limited to what the headquarters staff think the public needs to know.
“It’s very complicated to cover the issue of the coronavirus itself because the republican headquarters offers very little information,” commented Dilya Yusupova, an investigative journalist for the independent news site Kaktus.kg. “And questions come up related to what information that’s presented to us for which we don’t receive an answer,” said Yusupova.
Since the introduction of Kyrgyzstan’s March 22 state of emergency, she has not been able to press government officials and parliamentary deputies in person on sticky questions. The Kyrgyz parliament has since extended the state of emergency until April 30.
The measure imposed a lockdown and restricted traffic in Bishkek and two large southern towns, Jalalabad and Osh, as well as in three regional areas. In Bishkek, an 8pm-7am curfew is also in effect. Government employees now generally work from home.
Other journalists in Kyrgyzstan also are complaining about the growing unwillingness of officials to communicate with journalists amidst the country’s state of emergency.
“We only have access to the press office of the commandant’s office, for example, once a day and that’s it,” underlined the publisher of Kyrgyzstan’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, Zhyldyzbek Kerimbaev. Commandant Almazbek Orozaliyev enforces the terms of Bishkek’s state of emergency and curfew.
Sometimes, the commandant’s office allows journalists to pose questions for press briefings, noted Kerimbaev, but this does not mean that the journalists will receive answers to their questions.
“A few hours before the press-conference, questions are taken, but the officials just don’t have answers for some of the questions,” said Kerimbaev. “Therefore, they ignore them.”
That relative silence about the government’s activities only breeds public distrust, believes Samnatei Amanbekov, editor-in-chief of Elgezit.kg.
The U.S. watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently praised Kyrgyz media’s pluralism as “exceptional in Central Asia,” but flagged a series of defects, including “difficulties in accessing information.” The group’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Kyrgyzstan 82nd out of 180 countries, between Malta and Haiti.
Aside from reporting, the curfew and need for permits to travel in Bishkek have also made running a broadcast difficult for independent journalists. Without permits, neither journalists, nor guests can get to a studio to go no the air.
“The fact that the majority of independent media hasn’t received either accreditation or permits to move around the city has sparked a lot of worry and confusion,” stressed Maksim Poletaev, anchor of the TV channel TV1KG, which broadcasts from Bishkek. “This, without a doubt, impacts the audience’s access to objective information.”
For more than three weeks, Poletaev’s colleagues and TV reporters from other channels have been running live broadcasts from their apartments and writing stories on the balconies of their homes.
“It’s very bad because they’ve banned us from moving around the city and have restricted our work,” agreed Kaiyrgul Urumkanova, editor-in-chief of the Govori.kg site in Bishkek. “Because we cannot get timely, firsthand information.”
Current Time’s Asia news broadcast, based in Bishkek, was compelled to move its own broadcasts to Current Time’s main office in Prague. The station, run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in association with the Voice of America, has now received the necessary permission to travel in the Kyrgyz capital and expects to resume its Bishkek broadcasts shortly.
The situation has been more relaxed for Kyrgyz state media. Even after the introduction of a curfew, the anchors of the main state news channel, Ala-Too-24, have been able to go on air from their studio. Ala-Too-24 Editor-in-Chief Syuita Sourbaeva explains this by the fact the station’s broadcasts are recorded earlier than the curfew begins.
“The only people working are those who’re involved in getting out the news,” commented Sourbaeva. “You know, we’re a 24-hour channel. Therefore, most of our employees work remotely. Only the broadcast’s editors and anchors come in once a day to record the programs.”
As confirmation, she showed the channel’s empty studios with her camera.
Officials also have not given out special permits to the state channel’s employees, according to Sourbaeva, but authorized vehicles do take the anchors and technicians to work.
Like other media activists, media expert Gulnura Toraliyeva objects to the limitations put on journalists’ work in Kyrgyzstan. To fight effectively against the pandemic, she underlined, the public has to be informed, and to do this, journalists should have the possibility to work freely, to move around the city and talk with officials.
In the United Kingdom, “these are essential employees,” Toraliyeva pointed out. “In Ukraine, the parliament created a video of their session [for media], and in Malaysia they supply journalists with protective devices.”
The Kyrgyz government does not appear to have addressed these specific criticisms of its coronavirus measures, but Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov earlier emphasized that the country’s future development depends, in part, on a strong media.