World News

U.N. chief "troubled" by Kyrgyz media crackdown

BISHKEK (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday he was “troubled” by a crackdown on press freedom in Kyrgyzstan as police clashed with opposition protesters during his visit to the Central Asian state.

Seeking to draw Ban’s attention to what they see as human rights violations in the former Soviet nation, protesters shouted “help us” as Ban arrived in the parliament building to make a speech. Police broke up the crowd after a brief clash.

Ban’s tour of Central Asia is being watched closely for how strongly he pushes human rights issues in the vast Muslim region run by authoritarian leaders who tolerate little dissent.

Although Ban is likely to stick to diplomatic language during his first tour of Central Asia, his visit has emboldened local rights defenders to speak up about problems in the region.

On the sidelines of Ban’s closed-door meeting with Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev, a senior U.N. official told Reuters the U.N. chief had particularly stressed he was “troubled” by steps taken by the authorities to limit independent reporting.

The U.N. official quoted Ban as telling Sarbayev: “How do I answer such questions from the media and how do you answer the world?” The official said Ban delivered a similar message in a separate meeting with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Just days before Ban’s visit, Kyrgyz police seized equipment in a raid on a local television channel, effectively taking it off the air in what the opposition said was an attack on press freedom.

Advocacy groups have accused the West of putting oil and security above democracy in its contacts with Central Asia, a region lying on vast energy reserves and serving as a transit route for supplies headed for NATO-led troops in Afghanistan.

Outside the parliament building in the center of the capital Bishkek, opposition and human rights defenders rallied and shouted “freedom” as Ban’s motorcade arrived.

Police pushed the crowd back and cordoned off the entire area around the parliament building.

“We want Ban Ki-moon to start paying attention to what is happening here, to the fact that human rights are being violated here and that Kyrgyzstan uses repression against its own people,” said Asiya Sasykbayeva, an activist at the rally.

“There is no media freedom in this country. There is no alternative information. Dissent is being suppressed.”

Two prominent journalists were killed in the region late last year. Several independent media websites and radio stations have not been accessible in Kyrgyzstan since early March.

“We are deeply disturbed by the actions of Kyrgyz authorities to systematically unplug their citizens from independent and opposition news sources,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.

Speaking in Turkmenistan on Friday, Ban said he had won human rights concessions from the Turkmen leader after urging the country to focus more on the issue on his first tour of former Soviet Central Asia.

Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Jon Hemming