By Leila Saralayeva (CP)
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Several dozen activists and opposition politicians rallied in the capital of Kyrgyzstan on Monday in protest against what they say are government efforts to block the broadcast of U.S.-funded radio and television programs.
Critics of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev say the government is trying to silence Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, as part of the authorities' attempt to stifle independent reporting.
Since coming to power in 2005, Bakiyev has tightened his grip over the impoverished former Soviet nation, prompting fears of deepening authoritarianism.
Radio Azattyk has been unavailable across most of Kyrgyzstan since Wednesday after several of the station's local partners revoked their rebroadcasting deals.
"Our partners, which relay our radio transmissions, say they have come under pressure and been threatened with having their license revoked, so they unilaterally broke their contracts with us," said Radio Azattyk reporter Bektash Shamshiyev.
Most Kyrgyz people rely on state-controlled broadcasters as their main source of news, but those stations have failed to cover a series of protests against rising costs for heating and electricity.
"Radio Azattyk is the only radio station that informs the public about what is really happening in the country," said Ak-Shumkar opposition party leader Temir Sariyev.
RFE/RL says its Kyrgyz television affiliate station has also been threatened with having its license revoked if it continued to air popular political analysis programs.
Presidential office spokesman Almas Turdumamatov denied the government was behind Radio Azattyk's problems.
"As I understand, Azattyk's problem is with private companies that have refused to relay their broadcasts," Turdumamatov said.
Several media outlets that cover Kyrgyzstan have seemingly fallen victim to a co-ordinated media blackout in recent days, including a handful of prominent Central Asia-focused news sites, which have been inaccessible to Kyrgyz Internet users since Wednesday.
Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition, said numerous news outlets were blocked after they reported on an arrest warrant recently issued by an Italian judge for a U.S. businessman that has been advising the Kyrgyz government.
All Central Asian countries - which also include Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - are ranked by international rights groups as the some of the world's worst offenders for absence of free expression.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America are also banned from broadcasting from within Uzbekistan.
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