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Zanoza.kg: Rising from the Wreckage of Kyrgyzstan's Largest Russian-Language Newspaper

Kyrgyzstan's revolution in April 2010 cost up to a hundred lives and was followed by ethnic violence killing over 400 people in the country's south. Wikipedia image.

Kyrgyzstan's revolution in April 2010 cost up to a hundred lives and was followed by ethnic violence killing over 400 people in the country's south. Wikipedia image.

The story of the rise and fall of the news portal Vb.kg is one of the most dramatic and contested in the history of independent media in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

The name Vecherniy Bishkek is most often associated with the large-circulation Russian language newspaper that a series of governments in the Central Asian republic of six million people have sought to control.

After toeing the line of the authoritarian government prior to 2010 Kyrgyz revolution — a spontaneous uprising against a background of rising living costs and massive corruption — the paper developed a reputation for its critical line towards the new government, and won praise from international observers for its objective reporting on ethnic violence in the country in 2010.

In the years following that violence, in which roughly 500 people died, the newspaper's online arm, Vb.kg, also came to the fore as one of the country's most widely-read and trusted websites.

The government struggling to establish its authority over the country liked neither, with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev even sensationally accusing the outlet's reporters of causing the death of his mother and brother from stress-related illnesses in 1996 and 2015 respectively.

By 2015 the outlet was fending off defamation lawsuits from two close advisors of Atambayev at the same time as its parent company was the subject of a bitter legal battle with a former co-owner, who claimed to to have been cheated out of his stake when the company was restructured a decade earlier.

Vecherniy Bishkek depicted Aleksandr Ryabushkin's bid to take back his part of the company as a government ploy to destroy a critical voice in the media, while the government denied that it had any role in an “ownership dispute” between Ryabushkin and his one-time business partner Alexander Kim.

But the extent to which the government went to trash Vecherniy Bishkek aroused suspicions that this was not the case.

In May, for instance, the state-owned OTRK channel aired several times a controversial 25-minute smear segment calling Vecherniy Bishkek, “a business of lies” and accusing the group of being a front for the political interests of the hated Bakiyev family ousted from the country in the 2010 violence.

By the end of last August, court rulings had disowned the reclusive Kim of his interests in Vecherniy Bishkek.

Among the assets transferred to Aleksandr Ryabushkin was the company's printing press — a strategically valuable asset in a small country where newspapers often depend on contributions from businesses and politicians to meet publishing costs.

Many of the staff that worked for Vb.kg meanwhile moved over to a new startup Zanoza.kg, which rapidly became one of the country's top news websites according to the online rankings of Liveinternet.ru, as Vb.kg's online presence dipped under new leadership.

Zanoza.kg's Editor-in-Chief Dina Maslova, who previously ran Vb.kg, spoke to Global Voices about the challenges facing independent media in the country of six million people.

Global Voices: According to the Freedom House media watchdog, Kyrgyzstan has Central Asia's freest media, but is not actually free. Do you agree with that analysis? What features sum up the state of Kyrgyzstan's media space today?

Фридом Хаус подчеркивает, что Кыргызстан – самая свободная страна в регионе. Посмотрите, какие авторитарные страны нас окружают, среди них, да, Кыргызстан – свободная страна. Но, во-первых, Фридом Хаус отмечает, что ситуация в Кыргызстане ухудшается. Во-вторых, я против того, чтобы останавливаться на достигнутом, сравнивая себя с худшими. В любой ситуации, не только в оценке свободы СМИ, нужно сравнивать себя с лучшими и стремиться развиваться. Если сравниваешь себя с худшими, то отпадает стремление двигаться дальше, так начинается деградация. С таким же успехом можно говорить, что в Кыргызстане в отличие от самых бедных африканских стран есть дороги, канализация и электричество. Это не стимулирует развиваться. А вот когда посмотришь, как живут развитые страны, то хочется тянуться.

Что касается характеристик СМИ Кыргызстана, то я бы выделила следующие:

Сужается пространство для свободы слова. Когда речь идет о свободе СМИ, то тут вопрос не в свободе написания статей о спорте или шоу-бизнесе, а о выражении мнения о политике и действиях руководства страны. В интернет-пространстве популярные ресурсы с альтернативными властям точками зрения – “Азаттык” и Zanoza.kg. Остальные находятся под влиянием аппарата президента. Двух-трех ресурсов мало для нашего информационного поля. Редакционную политику на ТВ также диктует аппарат президента. Те телеканалы, на которые он не влияет, или ничего не говорят о политике и “Белом доме”, или настолько непопулярны, что на них не обращают внимания. Тиражных газет с независимым мнением в Кыргызстане тоже не осталось, развлекательные газеты я не учитываю.

Уровень кыргызскоязычных СМИ остается низким, потому что они по-прежнему принадлежат политикам или находятся также под контролем пресс-службы президента. Это одна из причин того, почему продолжают существовать так называемые ушаки. Власти выгодно иметь такую площадку для компромата. И по некоторым темам заметно, что слив делается именно из “Белого дома”.

Серьезно беспокоит ситуация в судебных инстанция. Суды находятся под полным контролем властей, поэтому при их желании СМИ могут через суды отобрать или обанкротить. Политически мотивированные процессы рассматривают одни и те же судьи, которые в нарушение многих процессуальных и иных норм навешивают на СМИ многомиллионные иски – якобы ущербы, где цифры взяты с потолка.
Низкий уровень финансирования за счет рекламных средств тормозит развитие СМИ.

Остается проблема с кадрами. Но это проблема системная в нашей стране. Такого не может быть, чтобы в одной сфере все было хорошо, а в остальных все плохо.

Dina Maslova: Freedom House says that Kyrgyzstan is the freest country in the region. But look at the authoritarian countries surrounding us! For sure, in comparison to them, Kyrgyzstan is free. But Freedom House also notes the situation in Kyrgyzstan is getting worse.

Secondly, I am against the idea of resting on your laurels and comparing yourself with the worst there is. In any situation, not only in media freedom, you need to compare yourself to the best and aspire to be better. If you compare yourself with the worst, then the impulse to move forward is lost. That is where stagnation sets in.

You can say with the same assuredness that in comparison with the poorest countries in Africa, Kyrgyzstan has roads, sewage and electricity. But that won't stimulate further development. On the other hand, when you look at how the most developed countries live, you want to move in that direction.

In terms of the features of the media space in Kyrgyzstan I would say the following things:

  • Space for freedom of speech is growing more restricted. When people talk about freedom of press they are not talking about the ability to write articles about sport or show business, but the ability to express opinions about politics and the actions of the national leadership. Of the most popular online media only two have editorial platforms differing from that of the government: [U.S. Congress-funded] Azzatyk and Zanoza.kg. The rest are under the influence of the presidential apparatus. Two or three [independent] outlets is not enough. Television content is also dictated by the presidential apparatus. Those television channels that [the president] does not influence either say nothing about the executive branch or are so unwatched that nobody pays attention to them. There are no newspapers left that have both an independent editorial position and a significant distribution.
  • Court rulings against media outlets are a source of serious concern. The courts are under the complete control of the government, and for this reason media outlets can be appropriated or bankrupted at a whim. The very same judges consider these politically motivated cases every time. Huge damages, with figures taken out of the sky, are pinned on journalists against a background of multiple procedural and other violations [on the part of justices].
  • Kyrgyz-language press remains poor in terms of quality because outlets belong to politicians or remain under the control of the presidential press service. That is why these newspapers are dominated by political mudslinging. For the authorities it is useful to have these platforms, and judging by some of the content in these newspapers, it is very apparent that it is the executive branch that is slinging the mud.
  • Media suffers from a low level of finance due to an absence of advertising income, which in turn stymies the development of the local press.
  • There are problems related to human resources, which are systemic in our country. If one field suffers from this problem, so will others.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (left) has been Kyrgyzstan's president since 2011 and is constitutionally bound to leave office in 2017. The country has become less authoritarian under his government, but shows regular signs of backsliding.

Almazbek Atambayev (left) has been Kyrgyzstan's president since 2011 and is constitutionally bound to leave office in 2017. The country has become less authoritarian under his government, but shows regular signs of backsliding. His foreign policy has been strongly pro-Russian.

GV: If we assume that Vecherniy Bishkek was in fact seized under government orders, why was the company so important to the government? After all, newspapers’ circulations are shrinking across the planet, and the online team was always going to find another home…

Медиа-холдинг “Вечерний Бишкек” мог сохранять независимость, благодаря финансовой устойчивости. Это одна из немногих медиа-кампаний, которая не нуждалась в финансовых вливаниях донорских организаций, политических партий и пр. Независимость означает непредсказуемость для власти. А непредсказуемости власть всегда боится. Прошло достаточно времени, чтобы проанализировать ситуацию. Захват нужен был тем людям из окружения, которые расценивали “ВБ” как финансовый ресурс. То есть, например, Атамбаеву “ВБ” как источник дохода не нужен, но “помощникам помощников”/ “советникам советников” и ниже по иерархии это вполне доходный бизнес. Как информационный ресурс “ВБ” все еще интересен. В холдинг входили три газеты: несмотря на то, что тиражи печатных СМИ в Кыргызстане и мире снижаются, “ВБ” оставался влиятельным ресурсом, а у интернет-сайта vb.kg к тому времени тоже была большая аудитория (более 400 тыс. пользователей в месяц). Сейчас многие говорят, что какие-то российские группы через наших чиновников решили захватить “Вечерний Бишкек”, чтобы редакционная политика была более предсказуемой. Не могу это утверждать, но редакционная политика на самом деле стала пророссийской, причем безальтернативно пророссийской.

DM: The media holding Vecherniy Bishkek was one of the few in Kyrgyzstan that was able to maintain independence thanks to its financial sustainability. It did not depend on contributions from donor organisations, political parties and so on.

For the government, independence equates to unpredictability, and government will always fear unpredictability. Now enough time has passed to analyse the situation.

I think the seizure of VB was driven by allies [of President Atambayev] that viewed the holding as a financial resource. That is to say that at the level of Atambayev himself, VB is not needed as a source of income, but at the level of “helpers of the helpers”, or “advisors to the advisors” and further down the hierarchy, it is a very good business to reap profit from.

Moreover, VB is of interest [to authorities] as an information resource. There were three newspapers in the holding in total. Not withstanding the fact that newspaper circulations in Kyrgyzstan, as the world over, are down, VB remains a very influential resource, while the internet website vb.kg had a big audience — 400,000 users a month — at the time it was seized.

Currently, many people say that some kind of Russian groups decided via our state officials to seize Vecherniy Bishkek so that the editorial policy would become more predictable. I cannot confirm this, but the editorial policy has become pro-Russian, and from what I can see, consistently pro-Russian.

GV: Do you miss Vb.kg?

Нет, не скучаю. Если я закрываю за собой дверь, то ни о чем и ни о ком не вспоминаю. Новый проект – Zanoza.kg – помог начать многое с чистого листа для меня как журналиста и как для медиа-менеджера. Я уже не совершают некоторые управленческие ошибки, которые имели место быть в “ВБ”. И самое важное, сейчас я не исполнитель, а учредитель издания. Мне требуются другие компетенции, чтобы его развивать. Считаю, что собственное развитие – это важный плюс.

DM: No, I don't. When I close the door, I close the door.  Zanoza.kg helped me turn over a new leaf in many senses as a journalist and media manager.

I no longer make the type of executive mistakes I sometimes made at VB. And most importantly, I am now a founder, rather than just a manager. That means a different set of demands in terms of developing the outlet. Personal development is always a big plus.

GV: Zanoza.kg has become one of the country's leading media outlets in a very short space of time. How do you explain this?

- У меня остались мои страницы в социальных сетях, которые обеспечили нам стартовую площадку. Они на момент создания Zanoza.kg давали нам 5 000 посетителей в день. Сейчас наша аудитория в сутки 20-22 тысячи.
- Это команда. У нас небольшая, но профессиональная команда, которая тоже училась на своих ошибках и развивалась в период работы в “ВБ”. Сам факт того, чтобы мы теперь сами себе хозяева и сами на себя работаем, заставляет нас работать активнее.
- Уход команды vb.kg был громким событиям в медиа-сфере Кыргызстана. Эта новость сразу привлекла внимание многих. За нами пошли наши партнеры и наши источники, с которыми мы много лет работали.
- То, что мы являемся медиа-ресурсом с альтернативной точкой зрения, привлекает аудиторию. Образованным людям неинтересно читать только пропагандистские или, по крайней мере, люди сравнивают информацию в нескольких источникам и делают вывод сами. На самом деле аудиторию не обманешь приукрашенными заявлениями политиков – люди живут в реальном мире и видят то, что вокруг них происходит. В каких-то моментах они находятся схожие взгляды в наших материалах.

- У нас стало больше развлекательных материалов – это тренд в Интернете, который мы используем.

DM: Zanoza.kg became popular in a short space of time for many reasons:

  • I still retained my social media accounts, that guaranteed us a platform. [Currently Vecherniy Bishkek's parent company is suing Maslova as it claims the accounts belong to it. Maslova says the accounts were registered in her name and against her bank account]. They gave Zanoza.kg a viewership of 5,000 visitors per day. Now our audience is around 20-22,000 per day.
  • The fact that we are a media resource with an alternative viewpoint attracts readers. Educated people do not want to read propaganda, or, at least, want to read news from several different angles and draw their own conclusions. Our readership is not fooled by the embellishments of our politicians, people live in the real world and see what is happening around them. In this sense, people find that our content reflects their own views.
  • Our team is small but professional, most of whom worked at, learned from their mistakes at and developed themselves at VB. The fact that we are our own owners and work on ourselves every day forces us to be more active.
  • The exit of the team that made Vb.kg [from the Vb.kg holding] was a very notable event in Kyrgyz media circles. When we left, our partners and sources that we had built up over the years came with us.
  • We began using multimedia formats very actively, which is something we began at vb.kg.
  • We began to publish more articles on entertainment — it is a global online trend that we too have tapped into.
In Bishkek, a city of one million people, most people consume media in Russian. Beyond the confines of the capital, the Turkic Kyrgyz language dominates. Flickr image.

In Bishkek, a city of one million people, most people consume media in Russian. Beyond the confines of the capital, the Turkic Kyrgyz language dominates. Flickr image.

GV: Last October, when a group of prisoners broke out of a jail in Kyrgyzstan, Zanoza.kg was the only website to provide drone footage of the police operation to catch them. Given that several countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have tightened restrictions on drone use, what future do you think drones have in the Kyrgyz media space?

Беспилотник мы попросили у партнеров в продакшн-студии. На самом деле нас об этом попросили сами милиционеры. Они не могли найти террориста, который спрятался в огромной новостройке, где очень похожие дома и улицы. Думали, что с помощью дрона смогут его найти, но не получилось. Беспилотники – сейчас новомодная штучка, которые используют СМИ. Они будут использовать ее и дальше, но аудитория будет расценивать это как что-то привычное.

DM: The drone was a request we made to our partners at a local production-studio [drone.kg]. And the police was actually keen for us to do that.

They could not find the terrorists [Editorial note: there was much debate in Kyrgyzstan as to whether the men that broke from the jail were Islamic militants, or just common criminals] who were hiding in a huge new housing settlement full of houses and streets that looked the same. They thought the use of a drone might help, but it did not.

Drones are now very much in fashion. Media will continue to use them and the media's audience will come to expect it.

GV: There is a lot of talk of an “information war” being played out in Kyrgyzstan's media between Washington and Moscow. Do you think that is a fair analysis?

Информационная война в КР – часть глобальной информационная войны. Она была, есть и будет. Но пока Москва и Вашингтон воюют в информационном поле, Пекин отвоевывает экономические проекты в Кыргызстане, при этом растет влияние арабского мира в нашей стране. Меня больше беспокоит это.

DM: The information war in Kyrgyzstan is a part of the broader global information war. It has always been and always will be.

But while Moscow and Washington wage a war in the information space, China is bedding down its economic interests in Kyrgyzstan and the influence of [Middle Eastern countries] over our country is ever-increasing.

These trends bother me a lot more.

Our work building bridges across cultures, languages and perspectives is more urgent than ever before.

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