Election Agency Should Allow Web Outlets to Cover Presidential Election
August 4, 2011
In this day and age it’s strange to exclude online coverage in this way. The election commission’s decision will put voters at a big disadvantage in getting timely information about the election.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director

(New York) – Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission should grant accreditation to online news agencies so they can cover the country’s October 30, 2011 presidential campaigning and election, Human Rights Watch said today.  

The Central Election Commission (CEC) accredited 40 television and radio broadcasting companies and 103 print publications on July 21, but refused to consider accreditation for 11 online news agencies.

“In this day and age it’s strange to exclude online coverage in this way,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The election commission’s decision will put voters at a big disadvantage in getting timely information about the election.”

The commission said it based its decision on Kyrgyzstan’s mass media law, whose definition of mass media does not explicitly include online news sources. However, the commission accredited online news agencies to cover Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 parliamentary and 2009 presidential elections. 

According to the Media Policy Institute, a Bishkek-based nongovernmental organization that focuses on media policy and legislation, about one million Kyrgyz regularly use the internet and read news online. For example, traffic on 24.kg, a major internet outlet, has increased 100-fold from its 1,000 hits per week when it opened in 2006.

Barring online news agencies from fully covering the election is incompatible with Kyrgyzstan’s obligations to respect freedom of expression because it places arbitrary limits on where and how Kyrgyzstan’s voters receive information about presidential candidates, Human Rights Watch said. 

In line with a July election commission directive, accredited media outlets may attend its meetings, get information from the commission about its decisions, record video and audio materials on  its premises, and be invited to briefings, news conferences, and other meetings the commission organizes. Agency staff are authorized to facilitate media contacts with the commission chairman, his deputies, commission members, and other staff. 

By excluding online media outlets from the commission’s events and from access to its official information, the CEC significantly curbs the quality and timeliness of online news agencies’ reporting about the election, Human Rights Watch said. The move will also deprive Kyrgyzstan’s large expatriate community of fast and accurate information about presidential candidates, Human Rights Watch said.

Kyrgyzstan has obligations under international human rights treaties to which it is a party, for example the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to safeguard access to information, which is central to a democratic society. The exclusion of online media from accreditation cannot be justified under the covenant as a legitimate and proportionate limitation on the right to expression and information.

The commission chairman, Tuigunaly Abdraimov, justified the decision to exclude online media by saying the commission does not have the authority under the mass media law to monitor these agencies and to issue sanctions  in case of violations.

At a July 26 news conference, he said the commission had “an unfortunate experience” when it “did not have any leverage over those [accredited] online news agencies that violated the law.”  Abdraimov did not provide any examples of infractions. He did not explain why accreditation could not be made conditional upon compliance or why a drastic solution such as refusing accreditation is an appropriate response.

In the past online news agencies were accredited for elections under the presidential and parliamentary elections law, which states that candidates may conduct  campaigns through “mass media outlets, organizing public events, producing and disseminating print, audio and video and other campaigning materials, and in any other way not prohibited by this constitutional law.”  It remains unclear why the commission is applying the same law differently this time to exclude the online news agencies. 

Human Rights Watch called on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to address the ambiguities in the legislation and bring it in line with the new media developments. 

“Choosing one’s source of information is one of the fundamental principles of a democratic society,” Williamson said. “The CEC should not disregard that. Providing Kyrgyzstan’s voters with diverse and full information during the election campaign should be the election commission’s priority.”