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At 60, Kyrgyz Service Is Still Learning New Tricks

Though still popular on the airwaves, Azattyk is also known for its original TV programs.
Though still popular on the airwaves, Azattyk is also known for its original TV programs.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service joined other Central Asian services in celebrating its 60th anniversary on March 18. Although recent years have seen political turbulence and ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a new constitution passed in 2010 positions the country as one of the most democratic in the region. The Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, was there to see it all and has flourished in the emancipated media environment with TV and multi-media broadcasting, most notably with coverage of women’s issues, regional communities and ethnic minorities, and smart, topical youth programming.

In February, Azattyk visited a women’s prison in the village of Stepnoe near the capital Bishkek. The prison is home to approximately 300 inmates, many of whom came from Kyrgyzstan's southern region near the border with Tajikistan, a hotspot for drug trafficking. A number of the prisoners were serving sentences for transporting drugs as "mules."

The 15- to 20-hour bus journey to the prison is prohibitive for most of their families, but inmates are permitted to keep their children with them until the age of three. Kyrgyz Service reporter Eliza Kenenbaeva went behind the prison walls to interview the women about their hopes for their children and their own future.

Kyrgyz service photographer Ulan Asanaliev further documented the lives of the inmates and their children in striking black and white photos that were featured in RFE/RL's Facebook photo gallery.

In October 2012, reporter Torokul Doorov of the Kyrgyz Service investigated the plight of poverty-stricken Kyrgyz families forced to push their children into hazardous jobs, like working in coal mines, to ward off poverty and hunger.

The resulting "Childhood in the Sulukta Coal Mines" uncovers the story of children who are tasked with hard labor and face numerous health hazards, and gives voice to these marginalized and abused children.

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Azattyk has been broadcasting on television since 2005, but was initially relegated to studio-only reports by the then-repressive Kyrgyz regime. Since Kyrgyzstan's April 2010 revolution, however, a freer media environment has allowed television to flourish and Azattyk now serves the changing market with original and engaging TV programming packed with exclusive field reporting both at home and abroad.

Inconvenient Questions” is a weekly 30-minute discussion program addresses the full spectrum of hot topics making the headlines in Kyrgyzstan. "Azattyk+" is another weekly 30-minute show and is targeted to young adults with pop music and edgy topics like gay rights, women’s issues, immigration and vignettes of daily lives.

With a crew of seven -- two cameramen, two producers and three presenters -- Azattyk's televised investigative reports from the capital Bishkek and surrounding regions inform audiences in unique and original formats.

Many of the outstanding reporters with the Kyrgyz Service have been recognized and honored internationally for their coverage of human rights and women’s issues. In 2011, Kyrgyz Service reporter Janyl Jusupjan was awarded a "Highly Commended" Diploma at the Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) Awards in London for her brave coverage of women victims' stories during the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict in June 2010, as seen in her seven-part series called “The Invisible Women of Osh.”

One article in the series paints a searing portrait of Kamilla, a woman who was raped during the ethnic clashes in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. As Jusupjan wrote, Kamilla "saw the worst of fate, lost a good part of her health, and now with no job, is unable to feed her children and lives hiding her shame from the entire world." Jusupjan’s report managed to be both sensitive and unflinching in covering a subject that is hidden under many layers of taboo in the conservative country.

In a related series called “Osh Diaries,” Jusupjan produced original audio, video and photo coverage of issues still facing the women of Osh months after the ethnic tumult had settled. The series also delved into the lingering trauma experienced by internally displaced people and small businesses, as well as ongoing problem of housing insecurity, a catalyst to the initial conflict. The series generated an incredible amount of traffic on the Kyrgyz Service’s website, as no other local media outlets were covering this terrible aspect of the clashes. As the only media outlet to cover the hardships of all ethnic groups with an even hand, Jusupjan's reports also generated threats from Kyrgyz nationalists.

Reporting from remote parts of the country and abroad, Jusupjan has documented the lives of Kyrgyz minorities living in neighboring countries, including in China and Tajikistan, countries not easily accessible for foreign journalists. She has also covered ethnic minorities living inside Kyrgyzstan, such as the Kalmyk people, the minority group pictured below. Like her reporting on the scars of the 2010 clashes born by all ethnic groups, her coverage of the Kalmyk people is the only work of its kind in Kyrgyzstan.

By going where other journalists will not go and documenting the issues that affect people’s lives over multiple mediums, the Kyrgyz Service continues to be an invaluable resource for audiences in Kyrgyzstan and abroad.

--Emily Thompson