- Global Voices - https://globalvoices.org -

Kyrgyz Journalist Loses ‘One Som’ Court Case Against His Country's President

Categories: Kyrgyzstan, Citizen Media, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Human Rights, Media & Journalism, Politics
Imaged shared by local Kyrgyz website mmm.kg.

Daiyrbek Orunbekov. Imaged widely shared [1] on Twitter.

A journalist “debtor” of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has failed [2] in his bid [3] to countersue the head of the Central Asian state for defamation.

Editor of Kyrgyz language outlet Maalymat.kg, Daiyrbek Orunbekov, was sued [4] by President Atambayev to the tune of 2 million Kyrgyz soms ($26,000) last year for offending his “honour and dignity” in a case that troubled media watchdogs and observers of the country.

Orunbekov had previously written several critical articles [5] wherein he accused the president of fomenting bloody conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek people in the south of Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 — a serious and so far unfounded allegation.

Orunbekov then launched his own lawsuit — with a single unit of the national som currency at stake — after Atambayev questioned his credentials as a journalist and suggested he had been “working on somebody's money” during his end-of-year speech.

But on February 15, a court in the capital Bishkek determined Atambayev's words were not sufficiently insulting so as to merit damages worth slightly more than a single US cent.

President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev during a press conference in December 2015

President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev during his end-of-year press conference in 2015. Presidential press service.

Orunbekov, meanwhile, has said he does not have the money to pay the president the damages.

As part of the same early December ruling, Orunbekov is obliged to publish a refutation in all the mass media at his own expense.

On December 17 Orunbekov managed with the help of friends to collect by crowd funding [6] some 12,000 soms ($170) in small-denomination coins.

Many of the coins were worth 50 tiyin, or less than a cent in dollar terms.

He was subsequently detained by police for attempting to deliver them to the country's main house of government.

Don't sue your electorate

Small denominations of Kyrgyzstan's national currency, the som. Shared [7] by Kyrtag news agency's official Twitter feed.

Few would call Orunbekov's articles responsible journalism — they lack balance and proper sourcing and tend towards hyperbole — but there is a feeling he has been picked on in an attempt by the government to bring the media into line.

Zhamalbek Byryshaev was one commenter who sympathised [6] with Orunbekov:

Жалко журналиста. В любом случае засудят.Но по моему максимальный моральный ущерб 10000 сом. Президент не должен судиться со своим избирателем. Сколько пишут о Обаме, Меркель, но не слышно, чтобы они подавали в суд

I feel for this journalist […]To my mind, the maximum moral compensation for damages should be 10000 soms ($130). The President shouldn't sue his electorate. When people criticize Obama and Merkel, they don't get sued.

A former MP, however, Tursunbai Bakir uulu supported Atambayev's position:  [8]

Nobody tricked these journalists [into writing] and Daiyrbek Orunbekov is a well-known instigator and poseur.

While Atai Beksadaev suggested [11] there were other reasons to sue Atambayev:

Лучше бы иск подал по поводу повышения цен на электроэнергию […] никто не думает о простом народе…

He might better be sued for electricity price increases […] No one cares about common people …

Despite the fact Kyrgyzstan presents itself as Central Asia's only democracy, President Atambayev has been noted for trashing journalists and representatives of civil society in his press appearances, a habit critics say threatens freedom of expression in the country.

Typically he accuses NGOs and journalists of working for paymasters in the West, or for the country's second President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who now lives in exile in Belarus.

Orunbekov's lawsuit against Atambayev was the first of its type accepted by a Kyrgyz court.

Last year lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov attempted to sue Atambayev for defamation over comments the president made about Toktakunov and other activists pushing against the introduction of biometric passports.

Atambayev had said [12] they were carrying out “somebody else's order.”

However, local courts twice refused to take up Toktakunov's complaint.