Bichkek, April, 18th, 2017 (Internews). A 2010 conflict between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz left hundreds dead in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Today, one broadcaster is a voice for unity in a fraught community. Elina Karakulova, from Internews, has visited this broadcaster, Yntymak, a television and radio organization broadcasting in both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary later this year.
Seven years ago, there would have been nothing unusual about broadcasting in both languages, especially one based in the southern region of Kyrgyzstan, where over a quarter of the population is ethnic Uzbek from Uzbekistan, right over the border. But beyond the humming corridors and colour-splashed studios of Yntymak’s main broadcasting hub, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh, is a town with scars.
In June 2010, just months after a revolution brought an interim government to power in the capital Bishkek, Osh became the epicenter for intercommunal violence that later developed along ethnic lines. Nearly 500 people died in the violence, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, and according to the United Nations at least 300,000 people were temporarily displaced. Following the violence, the Uzbek community came under pressure from authorities in the region, and was disproportionately targeted in the criminal investigations that ensued.
While the causes of the clashes were multifaceted and rooted in the Central Asian country’s turbulent domestic politics, one consequence became apparent immediately; Uzbek language broadcasts disappeared from television and radio. It would not be until the emergence in 2012 of Yntymak, whose name translates as “accord,” or “harmony,” that the language would become a fixture of the domestic airwaves again.
Since that time, Yntymak has blossomed from an organisation of a dozen journalists producing online radio into the leading regionally-based broadcaster, in terms of audience share, with around 90 employees.
In Yntymak’s planning office, the question of how best to show appreciation for some 38 female staff members on International Women’s Day is just one of the many decisions facing managing director Daniyar Sadiyev.
A more long-term strategic challenge for Sadiyev and others at Yntymak has been convincing the wider public of the need to broadcast in Uzbek, as well as the state language Kyrgyz, in the wake of the violence.
“To begin with, there was a lot of criticism. People would ask our camera crews in Osh, ‘Why are you doing this?’ People would phone in and vent their anger,” recalled Sadiyev. These complaints subsided as Yntymak won plaudits and acceptance across Osh city for its objectivity and unrelenting focus on local and socially relevant topics.
But fresh grumbles arose in 2014 as broadcasting expanded into the densely-populated province surrounding the city of 200,000, and once more, the following year, when broadcasts reached neighbouring Jalal-Abad province. “Most recently we expanded into [the southern province of] Batken. Batken province is ethnically mixed but Batken city is 90% ethnic Kyrgyz. Several people there said, ‘Your station is great, but we don’t need programmes in Uzbek.’ We explained that we broadcast for the whole southern region and that the region needs programmes in both languages,” said Sadiyev.
As a broadcaster co-founded by the national government but sourcing the majority of its finances from donors rather than the state, Yntymak occupies a unique place in the local media market. Regional competitors are overwhelmingly channels that serve the interests of either municipal administrations or individual politicians, meaning Yntymak carries a heavy burden in terms of defending the public interest.
It is precisely this balanced, investigative approach that has won the broadcaster friends across the southern region. But the same approach has made many local officials wary of Yntymak television crews showing up to cover the local news.
As Yntymak has expanded, its mission has taken on increasing importance, developing from a broadcaster bridging the differences between communities in the city most affected by the 2010 violence, to one capable of providing a voice to the diverse communities living across the southern region.