Journalist turned Ambassador turned Trade Advisor ...
and still fighting for freedom of press in Kyrgyzstan
By Erin Luhmann
Zamira Sydykova received the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award in 2000, in recognition of her adamant coverage of corruption in Kyrgyzstan and the resiliency she demonstrated against subsequent governmental attempts to shut down her paper, Res Publica. Since we last caught up with Sydykova, she has added Ambassador, scholar, trade advisor, activist, and grandmother to her list of lifetime achievements, while retaining her distinguished reputation as a leading female journalist in Kyrgyzstan.
In 2004, Sydykova was immersed in political reporting. Looking back, her independent paper, Res Publica, had weathered a series of libel charges and she had curtailed an 18-month labor camp sentence that threatened to squash her investigative efforts early on. But she found inspiration and leverage in 2000, when IWMF invited her to the U.S. to receive her Courage in Journalism Award. Using this international recognition as a buffer against governmental censorship, Sydykova gave voice to the opposition party. The ensuing Tulip Revolution overthrew President Askar Akayev. In 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev became president and appointed Sydykova the Kyrgyz Ambassador to the U.S. and Canada. She moved to Washington DC and worked in the Embassy for the next five years.
Ambassador Sydykova with
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
"I’m sure one of the reasons why I was appointed was that I was awarded by an American foundation," said Sydykova. "My new government saw my background – how much I had done for the Tulip Revolution and that I was awarded by the IWMF – and said I was the right person to be the Ambassador to the U.S."
In April 2010, a second round of violent political unrest ousted Bakiyev and flared ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minority. No longer serving as a Kyrgyz Ambassador, Sydykova pursued a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Center to put her journalistic skills to use in a new, yet meaningful, way. This time around, she felt it was her duty to respond as an academic, rather than as a journalist. Her American-based fellowship granted her the perspective she needed to write her book, "Revolutions Have a Beginning, Revolutions Have No End," which was published in 2011.
Sydykova drew inspiration for her book from the advances that her colleagues have made toward a freer press in Kyrgyzstan and she references their news articles throughout it. Recognizing the agency of local journalists during the volatile events in 2010, as well as international coverage of the situation, she said, "I appreciate what has been done by my colleagues, journalists throughout the world."
Following her transition from Ambassador to scholar, Sydykova then became interested in international trade as a means to building democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
"I promoted democracy during 15 years of my journalist career. Now I would like to set up and build something for trade between our two countries," she said.
She certainly has not abandoned her crusade for a freer press and greater freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan, but she has shifted her focus to improving trade relations between the U.S. and the Central Asian region. In her opinion, these two agendas are not at odds with each other – they are complimentary. She explained that both are critical to her nation’s democratic development. Naturally inclined toward leadership positions, in 2010 Sydykova became the Senior Advisor at DiscoveringEurasia, a consulting company that works with North American clients interested in investing in the Eurasian market.
Despite her latest venture into trade, Sydykova continues to uphold her reputation as a leading Kyrgyz journalist. As Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the now defunct paper Res Publica, she demonstrated that female reporters could be successful in a post-Soviet, Muslim nation. Even though she now lives in D.C., Sydykova has maintained her Kyrgyz media connections, becoming the go-to media liaison between U.S. media players and Kyrgyz sources and reporters.
She has interviewed on networks like Radio Free Europe and was honored to attend the opening ceremony of the new Freedom Forum building in D.C. In addition to maintaining her ties with IWMF, Sydykova has also worked closely with American media development organizations like IREX and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Even while serving as Ambassador, Sydykova’s work as a journalist was never over. She explained, "I was always in-touch with my connections with mass media institutions, organizations, and human rights groups [like the Committee to Protect Journalists.] When something happened in Kyrgyzstan with some kind of violations of free press, I tried to find the people within the Kyrgyz government with whom they could meet with and discuss the issues with."
Using this network of media development and advocacy organizations as a platform for voicing her concerns about the state of local media, she asks that the international community keep a watchful eye on Kyrgyzstan. "We still have problems with corruption. We’re still developing our society. We still have to defend human rights," she said, emphasizing, "No society can develop itself very well without women and without freedom of the press."
When she feels that she can help guide readers to think critically about current events, Sydykova will sit down and write articles and opinion pieces for local news sites. She may currently be preoccupied with trade, but she never retired her impulse to write.
"My concerns about keeping democracy in our country is what is pushing me to write the articles," she said. "When this concern is raised in my heart, I begin writing my articles and publish them in local mass media because I would like to remind the people of what we could lose and what we have to do to keep our democratic achievements."
Sydykova at a Kyrgyz exhibit
in Chicago (2008)
Fully dedicated to the promotion of the freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan, Sydykova has experienced both sacrifice and success. After accepting her position as Ambassador to the U.S. and Canada in 2005, she resigned as the Editor-in-Chief of Res Publica. Unfortunately, under new management, the paper lost direction and her colleagues chose to stop production.
While the local media environment has become less hostile towards journalists who criticize the government, she explained, corruption is still a threat to newsrooms in Kyrgyzstan. "Today, the newspapers and broadcasts are being run by different political groups," she said, adding that many journalists are willing to publish politicians’ statements for pay. These sorts of ethical breaches in professionalism influenced her colleagues’ decision to close Res Publica.
"I didn’t want to find my Res Publica in the hands of some political interests," she said. "If it would continue, it would be compromised from different political forces. But, during my management, it was absolutely independent."
As demonstrated by Sydykova’s actions, as well as those of her colleagues, the push for a freer press in Kyrgyzstan is still very much alive. She has shuffled her schedule a bit to spend time with her new 16-month-old granddaughter in Bishkek, but her work as a journalist is never really over and her colleagues will never let her forget that. She currently has her sights set on a new media project: hosting a TV program.
"TV is still under the control of the government," she said, while explaining her desire to moderate discussions on current events on her own TV program. She feels there is a need for local talk shows that highlight youth movements and address conflict moderation between different ethnic groups, a need that became starkly apparent after the April 2010 conflict.
"I should find the time for running this kind of project," she said. "I’m not finished yet."
Articles published by Zamira Sydykova
Experiments in Kyrgyzstan will continue (Google Translation)
На что открылись глаза журналистки после поездки на юг страны (Original version in Kyrgyz)
What opened my eyes after a journalist trip to the south of the country (Google Translation)
ДЕЛО БЫЛО НЕ В БОБИНЕ... (Original version in Kyrgyz)
October 16, 2012