Kyrgyzstan: Language and Media Still Sensitive Subjects in Southern Regions

Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, is calmer than it’s been in ages. The hostile vibe that has prevailed since inter-ethnic rioting in 2010 seems to be slowly dissipating -- evidenced by the fact that Kyrgyz and (some) Uzbeks can be seen strolling in the city’s parks together on weekends.

But the new normal is a far cry from the conditions that existed before the 2010 rioting. The local Uzbek population, which bore the brunt of the 2010 violence, may be tolerated, but Uzbeks still must contend with discrimination and limitations on cultural expression. This reality is particularly noticeable in the realm of mass media.

“There is a certain media revival in the southern region, but it is too early yet to say the situation is the way it was before the June 2010 events because there are few Uzbek-language media outlets,” said Marat Tokoev, head of the Association of Journalists, a Bishkek-based watchdog.

Before the 2010 Osh events, there were three Uzbek-language TV stations and two Uzbek-language newspapers, all owned by ethnic Uzbeks, according to a June study published by the Association of Journalists. During and after the violence, the owners of all five outlets fled Kyrgyzstan, according to the report. One TV station never reopened, while ethnic Kyrgyz took over the other two and the newspapers.

Later, two of the Uzbek owners were accused of separatism and organizing mass riots and were sentenced to prison in absentia. Such charges were common for Uzbek community leaders after the violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists says Khalil Khudaiberdiyev and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev were persecuted with “fabricated criminal charges” for their independent reporting, and basically for being Uzbek. “The ongoing repression of ethnic Uzbek media representatives must cease immediately,” the CPJ said in a statement released in June 2011.

Two years have brought modest improvements. Today, there are weekly Uzbek-language papers published by three southern municipalities, but all have limited circulations. A donor-funded website also publishes news in Uzbek.

Perhaps the brightest hope for an Uzbek-language revival in mass media is Yntymak Public Radio – started by the American non-governmental organization Internews with US government funding. Yntymak means “concord” or “understanding” in both Kyrgyz and Uzbek. The station, FM 106.1, went on air full-time in August and broadcasts in the three languages spoken widely in southern Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyz, Russian and Uzbek. Internews promises a TV station to follow.

Sabyr Abdumomynov, the station’s chief editor, says that Yntymak broadcasts news and music equally in the three languages. During the day, the content is 50 percent news and 50 percent music. Between midnight and 7 am the programming is entirely music.

The government in Bishkek proposed the radio project in September 2010, according to Ernis Mamyrkanov, a government liaison at the station. “It was necessary to create a special media outlet, the main purpose of which is the unification of the people of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

That a radio station is again broadcasting in their language has heartened many among the beleaguered Uzbek population. “The fact that news is broadcast in Uzbek and Uzbek songs are played on the radio has raised the spirit of the Uzbek community,” said Erkin Bainazarov, an Uzbek writer from Osh.

While it may offer hope to Uzbeks, the station has experienced lots of hardship in the months since it began broadcasting. Staffing issues have presented a constant challenge, those involved with the project say. Many Uzbeks, especially skilled young men, fled Kyrgyzstan following the 2010 violence. Of those remaining, most try to keep a low profile, lest they be rounded up and prosecuted for invented crimes by southern Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously partial courts.

“There is a catastrophic lack of Uzbek-language journalists,” said Denis Bevz, an Internews trainer at Yntymak. “At present, we have only one Uzbek-language journalist. Today, Yntymak’s biggest challenge is finding journalists who can write and report in Uzbek well.”

In September, several Uzbeks, including the disc jockey, abruptly left the station. Multiple sources told that Uzbek staffers had received threats sent via mobile phone text messages. Bevz, the Internews trainer, acknowledged “scurrilous text messages sent by hooligans,” but argues that members of all ethnic groups working at the station have received the threats.

Some quiet critics also grumble that the station isn’t really all that Uzbek in character. Though Yntymak promises to broadcast equally in the three languages, these critics assert the station still favors Kyrgyz. “Yntymak does not broadcast in Uzbek more than 20 percent of the time,” Alima Sharipova, a former press secretary for the Osh city government who now heads a non-profit dedicated to cross-cultural projects, told “Yntymak is a wonderful name, and we have been missing such things as friendship and ethnic tolerance, but why does Yntymak not broadcast fifty-fifty?”

Bevz said the lack of skilled Uzbek journalists hinders the production of Uzbek content, but went on to note two Uzbeks were expected to begin hosting radio talk shows in the coming weeks.

Given the lack of local Uzbek-language media outlets, Uzbeks living in southern Kyrgyzstan now tend to get most of their news from neighboring Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s state-run television and radio broadcasts easily reach Osh – some Osh suburbs sit right on the border.

Kyrgyz nationalist elements are widely regarded as responsible for hindering the re-emergence of a lively Uzbek language press in southern Kyrgyzstan. Some observers contend that the nationalists’ efforts to keep a lid on the Uzbek language are counter-productive when it comes to state-building. “We must think about national information security. I think it is better if the Uzbek-speaking population will receive information in the Uzbek language from the Kyrgyz media, rather than information from neighboring countries,” said Tokoev.