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Media landscape in Kyrgyzstan: Caught between elite capture and control of political and business interests

Article by Dr. Elira Turdubaeva

March 1, 2021

Media landscape in Kyrgyzstan: Caught between elite capture and control of political and business interests

The media system of Kyrgyzstan

Andrei Richter, now the Director of the OSCE Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media, categorises the key commonalities in the media systems of Central Asia and some other post-Soviet nations as being: the authorities’ informal circulation of guidance to the press; the inability of the opposition and independent media to receive services from the state and state-controlled media infrastructures; denying ‘disloyal’ media access to advertising and information; the abuse of state monopolies and subsidies; misuse of libel laws; promoting a culture of self-censorship; and illegal pressure, including violence against journalists.[1] Despite country-by-country differences, the commonalities of their systems predominate. They also include honor-and-dignity’ laws that threaten journalists with prison and media outlets with bankruptcy; little or no market support for self-sustaining media organisations; public distrust of the press; unethical behaviour by some journalists; control over licensing, airwaves and internet service providers; and physical attacks on and harassment of journalists.[2] Nevertheless, national perspectives vary widely on, for example, what constitutes a conflict of interest and what duty – if any – journalists owe to support development of national identity and statehood, particularly in a comparatively young country such as Kyrgyzstan without a history or tradition of national identity.[3]


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan’s media have, with some exceptions, enjoyed greater freedom than journalists in neighbouring Kazakhstan have.[4] Freedom House ranks Kyrgyzstan in number 38 out of 100 countries in terms of press freedom and defines it as partly free, as the country consistently demonstrates the highest scores on freedom of speech and expression in Central Asia, including in sections on media independence and the expression of political views.[5]


At the same time, the media system has preserved many recognisable features from the Soviet times. For example, many Kyrgyz journalists serve the state sponsored nationalist ideology the same way they served the Communist Party.[6]


According to the journalist and academic Eric Freedman, in Central Asia, the western concept of ‘independent’ press is often confused with ‘anti-regime press’, and news organisations that describe themselves as ‘independent’ are often, in reality, allied with and subsidised by an opposition party and in some instances subsidised by individual office holders or office-seekers.[7]


Under the assessment of progress against the freedom of speech objective in its Media Sustainability Index, the NGO IREX asserts that the legal framework in Kyrgyzstan, including the constitution, guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Nevertheless, they show how the authorities kept up their prosecution of media outlets, journalists, and human rights activists; denied several journalists access to public meetings; and did not always honor their obligation to release official information upon request.[8]


According to a Reporters Without Borders Report in 2019, the pluralism of the Kyrgyz media is exceptional in Central Asia, but the polarisation of Kyrgyz society is reflected in the media and in the environment journalists work in.[9]


According to Freedman, there was only slow movement towards privatising state-owned media.[10] Independent and oppositional media also remained in financial peril due to the country’s weak economy and high poverty level.


At the same time, the corruption that pervades much of government and business infects journalism in the country. Some journalists and news outlets demand under-the-table payments – ‘envelope journalism’ – either to report or not to report on a topic. In part, that practice reflects the low salaries for journalists and salary stagnation at a time of rapidly rising costs of living.[11]


According to Freedman, the weak national economy also made a market-supported media system unobtainable and unsustainable, with non-state media continuing to rely on the financial goodwill of foreign governments and multinational agencies, NGOs and foreign investors.[12]


Media economics and media ownership in Kyrgyzstan

At the beginning of 2020, according to the Unified State Register of Statistical Units, there were 1.8 thousand economic entities registered as mass media on the territory of the republic, and over the past five years their number has increased by almost 18 per cent. Among them are the newspapers ‘Kyrgyz Tuusu’, ‘Slovo Kirgizstana’, ‘Erkin-Too’, ‘Vecherniy Bishkek’, ‘Kutbilim’, ‘Super-Info’, ‘Avtogid’ and other publications.


In Kyrgyzstan there are 126 independent broadcasters, including the ‘National Radio Television Centre’, broadcasting company ‘New Television Network’, broadcasting company ‘Independent Bishkek Television’, the radio center ‘Pyramid’, radio station ‘Europe’ and others.


There were 9.73 million mobile connections in Kyrgyzstan in January 2020.[13]


Challenges to media in Kyrgyzstan include the still-potent practices of the Soviet press system in which ideology trumped media independence; low salaries for journalists in Kyrgyzstan; patriotism; and a wobbly economic foundation for a prospective market-based media system. Furthermore, many journalists worry about media economics and ownership as the viability of independent media remains in doubt. Although state subsidies underwrote government-affiliated publications and broadcasters during this period, a limited advertising market existed to sustain independent outlets, with the government as the main source of the limited advertising revenue available. Later, outside advertising increased, thus reducing government’s ability to use advertising to influence the media, yet oppositional press still generally depended on the deep pockets of politically motivated sponsors. Besides the understanding of local media as businesses, in Kyrgyzstan they are also seen as the ideological tools of state and nation building by allowing state propaganda on public service media outlets.


According to the IREX 2019 Media Sustainability Report, private media outlets are understaffed and underfunded, making it difficult for them to produce their own content.[14] The outcome is ‘press release journalism’, when media materials heavily rely on the opinions of politicians and press releases shared by state institutions. The same finding was revealed in my research for the IWPR which found that press releases (76.7 per cent) are still the major information source for journalists’ news reports in the country followed by websites (39.5 per cent).[15] The IWPR report also found that the main barriers and threats for high quality journalism in Kyrgyzstan are “insufficient financial resources” and “weak professional ethics”.


With the trend toward online outlets, newspaper circulation has decreased by 30–35 per cent over the past few years. The mass media law requires print media to state its readership circulation on every publication, but many newspapers fail to do so, making it difficult for the public to assess the scale of print media consumption. Subsidies from obscure owners constitute the main source of income of private media outlets. While experts involved in the IREX 2019 Media Sustainability Report believe that advertising is scarce, other experts suggested that the market for digital advertising is growing.[16]


Currently, 60 channels compete for a fairly small advertising market, which has led to widespread dumping prices and further deflation of the market. According to the Law on Television and Radio Broadcasting, half of the content broadcast between 7:00 am and 10:00 am and between 6:00 pm and 11 pm must be locally produced. However, according to the Expert Consulting Agency study, on average, the 20 monitored channels broadcast only 31 per cent local content—42 per cent of the content is in Russian and another 25 per cent is foreign.[17] Outside of those time slots, some channels significantly decrease the broadcasting of local content, and others broadcast none at all. Only a few channels, such as KTR, KTR-sport, KTR-Music, NTS, and ElTR meet the standards required by the law.


In Kyrgyzstan, the migration of advertising from local media to global platforms and online media is impacting the sustainability of local media. The cost-cutting strategies of local media in Kyrgyzstan and the poor salaries of journalist employed in local media impact editorial quality.


There are still no developed models for the development of media in Kyrgyzstan, and the search for a way to develop it is still ongoing.


A Struggle to adapt to the new media landscape

The media landscape in Kyrgyzstan represents a diverse and rapidly changing media sector. The media in Kyrgyzstan has struggled to adapt to the new media landscape, which emerged after transition to Digital Broadcasting. New local TV Channels were launched both on regional and national level which compete for audiences in regions. Online local and global news agencies are also providing content for regional audiences along with regional news agencies. Media outlets in Kyrgyzstan are using new digital technologies such as developing mobile applications and doing live streaming and podcasts. However, sustainability is still an issue when it comes to financial matters. The public service media is still depending on government subsidies and private media on advertisement and individual sponsors, mainly politicians and business people.


The weakness of the professional culture and the strength of other external pressures local journalists feel (e.g., poor pay, government subsidies and pressure, a weak market and lagging local business interest, generational fragmentation, and now a fragmented digital and print production environment) leads to a fragmented professional culture and fragmented work practices. These journalists are pushed in varying directions while still seeking purpose and autonomy in their daily work, and there is little professional coherence to offer them shared purpose and practice.


Young people in Kyrgyzstan are especially flexible in adopting digital tools in their daily lives and practices such as political and social activism and as a tool to express their identity and personal views.[18]


In August 2020, a contradictory law was proposed by the Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic “On Manipulating Information,” which specifically targets online speech that authorities allege interferes with the conduct of politics in the country.[19] This law emerged as the Government’s response to combat false information and fake news about COVID-19, but the motivation behind the legislation is much deeper.[20] This law has a potential to restrict political expression online and to have detrimental effects on online political participation and freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan. This law demonstrates the contemporary global struggle over fake news, misinformation, and the need to balance facts and perspectives. The law was not signed by the President of that time, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and was sent back to Parliament for second reading.


Challenges related to COVID-19


Access to information

The advertising market has decreased further due to the economic crisis in Central Asian countries and due to the increase of social media and Google advertising market in the region. The decrease in advertising revenues of media outlets may lead to further financial difficulties and dependency. The safety of journalists was an issue during pandemic. Outdoor reporting and filming by all private media outlets was stopped due to the lockdowns. Only state media outlets were able to function during lockdowns in Kyrgyzstan. The functioning of private media outlets was limited by the Government who required special permissions to work during lockdowns which caused problems in access to information. Investigative journalism was not possible due to the limited access to information sources during lockdowns. Interviewing public, getting information from state organisations and ministries was limited. Coordination Crisis Centers provided very scarce information on the situation to journalists. Speaking about the impact of the coronavirus on the work of journalists, focus group participants noted that female journalists had the most difficult time during the pandemic. With traditional roles still entrenched, especially during COVID, looking after the children, helping them complete tasks, cooking food for the whole family, and at the same time trying to find time to do their journalistic work is a physically and mentally draining challenge to keep up with. For this reason, some journalists stated they had experienced psychological stress. The same opinion was expressed by journalists and experts during an online survey.[21]


Misinformation and Fake News as a threat

During the pandemic fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 was spread in Central Asia through social media and some local media outlets. Conspiracy theories, memes, and fake information were widely spread causing panic and fear in the region. Hate Speech, online harassment and online attacks on journalists, activists and opposition politicians in Kyrgyzstan increased after the October 2020 events.


The role of social media’s impact on democratic discourse is widely acknowledged, however each context is unique, especially so in the post-soviet Central Asian space where the media landscape varies enormously from closed spaces to relatively open and in the case of Kyrgyzstan thriving. Social media plays an important role in opening and closing democratic spaces, especially in post-authoritarian and low-income countries like Kyrgyzstan with a robust media landscape and its potential to inciting political and social conflict.


Another phenomenon which has been associated with social media is an increasing activity of ‘troll factories’, which are not just engaging in spreading misinformation online but also have an impact on political life of the country. These ‘troll factories’ create and efficiently run fake accounts for high profile politicians such as Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Almazbek Atambayev, and support of Sadyr Japarov.[22] The coordinated actions of fake accounts and trolls online, combined with online harassment and hostility by supporters of Sadyr Japarov, who took over as interim leader in October 2020 after the post-election protests, are causing polarisation in Kyrgyz society. Trolls and fake accounts of Japarov’s supporters are using online abuse and offense to attack and silence activists, journalists and oppositional politicians during and after the October 2020 events in Kyrgyzstan. According to a recent article on openDemocracy about fakes and troll factories in Kyrgyzstan, they are offering a service to politicians and prominent figures who want to manipulate public opinion and paid-for ‘troll factories’ have become increasingly common on Kyrgyzstani social media. These troll factories run networks of fake accounts, using them to burnish their clients’ images and to denigrate opponents by flooding pages and websites with ‘likes’ and comments.[23] The press service of the State Security Committee announced on November 28th 2020 a “Call on everyone to cooperate in the interests of peace in the country”, as reports of “Provocative nature that various kinds of threats and posts of aggressive content allegedly from supporters of Sadyr Japarov are received through fake accounts in social networks” have become more frequent.[24] Politician Bektur Asanov (candidate in the January 2021 presidential elections) recorded a video message on November 26th 2020 where he spoke about the threats that he and his supporters receive on social networks from obscure accounts. After that, he turned to Japarov with a demand that he calms his supporters down. The day before, the Civil Control Committee called on law enforcement agencies to unite in the fight against the “aggression and threats” of Japarov’s supporters.[25] Activists noticed a flurry of aggression and threats, including death threats and threats of terrorism against individual politicians who criticise Sadyr Japarov.


According to Ashiraliev, the OTRK (Public TV and Radio Channel) and the Ala-Too 24 TV channel in Kyrgyzstan, which was opened under it, turned into a propaganda and agitation channel of the three branches of government, especially the President, and did not become a public channel as was originally intended.[26]


One of the features of the current Kyrgyz journalism is a strong reduction in analytical content. According to Ashiraliev, journalists and media have noted that this particular area had many requirements and a lot of questions accumulated.[27] The situation was criticised when there are almost no analytical programmes in state official newspapers, mass media or TV channels, and if there are any, their number is negligible. This problem brings us back to the question: does society have a need for good quality, in-depth journalism and commentary? In any case, it is probably time for journalists to start producing more analytical content so that the people will have a need for it.[28]


Although much has been done in terms of promoting media literacy in Central Asia, there is still a gap in strengthening critical thinking and media literacy in the wider public of Central Asian states. Because of a lack of critical thinking and media literacy, the ‘infodemic’ and misinformation was huge during pandemic in Central Asia.[29] There is also a growing tendency of using social media to manipulate public opinion especially during elections and political events in Central Asia. As the case of Kyrgyzstan during the October 2020 events has shown, massive online attacks of trolls and fake accounts on journalists, activists and oppositional politicians are growing and silencing them. That is why there is a need to promote critical thinking and media literacy among the general public in Central Asia.


Recommendations for the international community:

  • To help Kyrgyz media master new development models of media; and
  • Promote the development of high quality regional media through capacity-building, including training on investigative training, generative advertising revenue, crowd funding and other skills.


Fighting misinformation in Central Asia:

  • Civil society organisations can play a role in monitoring social media and providing systematic reporting in relevant timeframes. An evidence-based understanding of the threats and vulnerabilities can be the basis of effective solutions;
  • Provide access to correct information about COVID-19;
  • To train local journalists on science-based journalism to help them report on the pandemic;
  • To launch a new course on science-based journalism in the Journalism Departments of Universities to teach journalism students how to do science-reporting;
  • To launch MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) that are free online courses available for anyone to enroll on ‘Journalism and Pandemic’ for journalism students and journalists in the region;
  • To develop video-lessons and game based learning platforms on reporting the pandemic;
  • To support local media research on the coverage of COVID-19 by local media and the spread of misinformation and disinformation in Central Asia;
  • To support information campaigns against the ‘infodemic’ and misinformation;
  • To develop manuals and toolkits for local journalists in their local languages on how to reporting on COVID-19 and pandemic;
  • To use digital technologies, such as fact-checking software programmes and the detection of fake accounts and bots on social media, in the fight against misinformation and disinformation, and build capacity for journalists and media in Central Asia;
  • To assist in improving the professional knowledge of journalists (quality of education, outlook, and worldview);
  • To promote the qualitative development of the regional media;
  • To convey to journalists such basic values of journalism as the Code of Ethics, how to transmit reliable information, and tell the truth;
  • To train media organisations to conduct audience analysis and based on its results, achieve the trust of the people, and develop a model of how to operate based on audience funding;
  • To create fair competition among the media; and
  • To establish and distribute industry journalism that will cover other important aspects of life (medicine, economy, tourism, agriculture, scientific and technological achievements).


Capacity-building for journalism education in Central Asia:

  • To update the curriculum;
  • To train teachers about how to use online teaching;
  • To translate journalism books into the Kyrgyz language and to support media research at universities;
  • To support development of course materials such as course books, course readers and other educational resources;
  • To support the launch of online courses and video-lessons on journalism and media in local languages; and
  • To link journalism teachers and students in Central Asia up with European counterparts through exchange programmes.


Strengthening media literacy in Central Asia:

  • To promote development of the media literacy curriculum, pedagogical staff training and the development of teaching aids through the organisation of exchange visits to countries with well-established programmes in media literacy and media education;
  • To consider funding of a fact-checking platform or another technological know-how to debunk misleading information, information manipulation and fake news through regular monitoring and verification of information which represents public interest; and
  • To raise awareness about the public role of media, media regulation and the dissemination of information, the right to freedom of speech and expression and responsibility it comes with.


Support for media in promoting gender equality in Central Asia:

  • Train journalists on how to report on violence against women and girls;
  • Train journalists on how to report on gender equality;
  • Develop gender-sensitive editorial policies for media outlets;
  • Train editors and producers on how to be gender-sensitive in monitoring their reports; and
  • To support media monitoring on gender-sensitive reporting by independent monitoring agencies.


Support for media during elections:

  • Train journalists how to cover elections.


Supporting media in fighting radicalisation in Central Asia:

  • Train media outlets and journalists in Central Asia on how to provide conflict-sensitive coverage of news and topics on religion and radicalisation.


Dr. Elira Turdubaeva has a PhD degree in Media and Communications from Kyrgyzstan-Turkey Manas University. She worked at several universities, including a prior appointment as Department Head of Journalism and Mass Communications at American University of Central Asia. Currently she is a Senior Researcher on Network Analysis and Social Media at Graduate Studies Department of University of Central Asia. Her research focuses on media uses, political participation and media, election campaign analysis, protests and social media, social media uses, network analysis, new media studies, ICT and youth, propaganda analysis, representations of gender, journalism education, media and migration, media and activism, surveillance technologies and privacy in Central Asia, hate speech and social media, etc. She is also a founder and president of a new start-up Online University in Kyrgyzstan and Association of Communicators of Kyrgyzstan.


Image by Etienne Combier under (CC).


[1] Richter, A. 2008. Post-Soviet Perspective On Censorship and Freedom of the Media: An Overview, International Communication Gazette 70(5):307-324,

[2] Despite Kyrgyzstan’s higher position of freedom of speech compared to other Central Asian countries, journalists can be detained, warned, blacklisted and attacked in Kyrgyzstan and especially face regular threats for covering sensitive issues and/ or criticising public figures (Kurambayev, 2016).  Kurambayev, B. (2016). Journalism and democracy in Kyrgyzstan: the impact of victimizations of the media practitioners. Media Asia, 43(2), 102-111.

[3] Freedman, E. 2009. When a democratic revolution isn’t democratic or revolutionary. Journalism 10(6): 843–861.

[4] Junisbai, 2018. Are Youth Different? The Nazarbayev Generation and Public Opinion in Kazakhstan, Problems of Post-Communism.

[5] Freedom House, Freedom in the world 2020, Kyrgyzstan,

[6] Freedman, E. 2011. Theoretical foundations for researching the roles of the press in today’s Central Asia, in edited volume by Freedman and Shafer, After the czars and commissars: Journalism in authoritarian post-soviet Central Asia, pages 1-16, Michigan State University Press.

[7] Freedman, E. 2009. When a democratic revolution isn’t democratic or revolutionary. Journalism 10(6): 843–861.

[8] IREX, Europe & Eurasia, Media Sustainability Index 2019,

[9] Reporters Without Borders, Detailed methodology,

[10] Freedman, E. 2012. Deepening shadows: The eclipse of press rights in Kyrgyzstan, Global Media and Communication 8 (1), 47-64.

[11] Ibid; Freedman, E. 2007. ‘After the Tulip Revolution: Journalism Education in Kyrgyzstan’, Paper presented at the World Journalism Education Congress, Singapore.

[12] Freedman, E. 2012. Deepening shadows: The eclipse of press rights in Kyrgyzstan, Global Media and Communication 8 (1), 47-64.

[13] Simon Kemp, Digital 2020: Kyrgyzstan, DataReportal, February 2020,

[14] IREX, Europe & Eurasia, Media Sustainability Index 2019,

[15] Turdubaeva, The status of media and the role of social media in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, IWPR, November 2018,

[16] IREX, Europe & Eurasia, Media Sustainability Index 2019,

[17] Media Research of Kyrgyzstan, M-Vector Research and Consulting Group (2018), 2018,

[18] Zhunushova, S. O. 2017. The role of mass media as the main factor of transformation of social identity of youth in Kyrgyzstan under modern conditions. Роль СМИ как основного фактора трансформации социальной идентичности молодежи Кыргызстана в современных условиях. Проблемы современной науки и образования, (11 (93)).; Nasimova, G., Kilybaeva, Sh., Smagulov, K., & Basygarieva, Zh. 2019. Political Activity of the youth Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: a comparative analysis. ПОЛИТИЧЕСКАЯ АКТИВНОСТЬ МОЛОДЕЖИ КАЗАХСТАНА И КЫРГЫЗСТАНА: СРАВНИТЕЛЬНЫЙ АНАЛИЗ. Центральная Азия и Кавказ, 22(1), 68-83.; Richter, A. 2008. Post-Soviet Perspective On Censorship and Freedom of the Media: An Overview, International Communication Gazette 70(5):307-324.

[19] NetBlocks, Internet disrupted in Kyrgyzstan as protests break out over alleged vote rigging, October 2020,

[20] Natalie Simpson, Fake News, Real Censorship: A New Bill Threatens Freedom of Speech in Kyrgyzstan, FPRI, July 2020,

[21] Ashiraliev, E. 2020. What is the current state of Kyrgyz Journalism?, Public Foundation Journalists.

[22] Alexander Shabalin, “Troll Factory” by Matraimovs and Zheenbekovs started working for Sadyr Japarov- “Фабрика троллей” Матраимовых и Жээнбековых начала работать на Садыра Жапарова, Kaktus Media, October 2020,; Kamila Eshaliyeva, Real fakes: How Kyrgyzstan’s troll factories work, openDemocracy, November 2020,

[23] Ibid.

[24] Aigerim Ryskulbekova, GKNB considers reports of threats from fakes as “proactive”, Kloop, November 2020,

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ashiraliev, E. 2020. What is the current state of Kyrgyz Journalism?, Public Foundation Journalists.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] An infodemic is too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviours that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response (WHO, 2020) Infodemic (

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