“We must value our freedom of expression”

Interview with Aida Kasymadieva, journalist.

Aida Kasymadieva is a thorough journalist, whose mind is as keen as her pen. Whoever read her articles “Life experience of a non-Russian in Russia”, “Burned and forgotten”, “Sapargul’s Monologue”, “The divorce”, or “The sump of our lives”, among others, will understand that this is not an exaggeration. (When I first read her articles two-three years ago, I immediately thought that she would be a future writer)

  • Aida, I was first acquainted with you through your articles. You write with a clear, accessible and persuasive voice and, most importantly, with good sense. And this is not the only reason for which we read, watch or listen to your stories. How did you become a journalist?

I myself am from Osh region. I finished my school there, and started my career in the local OshTV. I remember that when I was in 8th or 9th grade, they started a contest for future leaders. I don’t really know why I went there.

A lot of students came. They selected a couple, but after a while I looked around and realized that I was the only one left to work.

I created a youth entertainment program called “Boomerang”. I spent my days and nights there, and my mom scolded me when I came home late. I myself thought up the program’s name, searching for available titles and imagining the scenario. I did all of this intuitively.

I don’t know why I needed all this – it was probably the call of the heart. But I am proud of this teenage girl. Since then, 15 years have passed, and I can assert that what I have done best was done with my heart and my intuition.

After I finished my high school, I went to Bishkek to study journalism. First I took the entry exams for AUCA, but my grade wasn’t high enough for a scholarship, and my parents could not afford the fee. In КРСУ there were no available scholarships for the journalism faculty. I remember how I stood by КРСУ and wept. For me, it was a real tragedy. My sister then convinced me to study in BGU, and I did not regret it. My mother tried to discourage me, because we had no journalists in the family and she didn’t want me to leave Osh.

  • Do you remember your first articles?

Of course. Not long ago a friend told me that she and students from another school read and copied them.

I won the national contest in Kyrgyz language. We used to read the integrity of Manas’ work. We could read «Сынган кылыч» in two day without difficulty. We also had wonderful classes of Russian language and of literature, where we developed our love for reading.

When I was a freshman in Bishkek, I started to work as a correspondent for “Student World” («Студенческий мир»), a youth release by the newspaper “Word of Kyrgyzstan” («Слово Кыргызстана»). There were some talented editors there, and it was a great experience.

  • What helped you become a journalist?

Now I understand that I just wanted to write. I couldn’t tell my parents that I wanted to become a writer, so I chose something close, where I could make words into sentences, “undercover”.

A lot of journalists are extrovert. I am the opposite. I may write a lot, but it does not mean that I communicate easily with people. My readings forged my character. My mother was a librarian. She often took me to work, and I read all the time.

  • Which article is your favorite?

I haven’t written it yet (laughs). In fact, a journalist can’t talk about a favorite article, because we have to start from scratch every day. Every day, you are nobody, and you need to show with your articles that every day, you are better.

One of my most productive periods was in Moscow (2010-2012). I made a couple of documentary films, reports and essays on immigrants. I worked for two years for Radio “Liberty” («Свобода»), while sending stories to the Bishkek-based media «Азаттык».

That’s when I realized how much I loved to write. When I am writing, I forget myself in the text, forget about time and simply feel the rhythm. I am also fascinated by people and their stories. And that’s another thing about writing: you are not yourself but just a medium.

  • When I watch and listen to news programs on TV, or when I read news releases by agencies or official press services, I feel like we are not taken seriously. In what consists this weakness of modern journalism?

I don’t want to say that I am the smartest in this field and that I will teach journalism to all. It’s not true, and it doesn’t work like that. Yes, there is a problem. But we must work together, and share our experiences to improve. For me, one key positive evolution is that «Азаттык» no longer depends on different press agencies.

We must value the freedom of expression that we have. We shouldn’t take a single step away from it. But we haven’t yet reached a strong, high-quality journalism. Often we complain that there is a lack of content, that there is nothing to read about. All of my friends, for example, read the Russian “Snob”. This information is what I call Groundhound Day: current and meaningless repetition of facts without context.

Every event and boring press conference is reported in one unique press-release in all the different news outlets, with no added value. Few media find themselves their topis, and even less say and uncover something important for the society. Anyone could organize his / her own press conference and make the headlines in the evening. I call that the Nurlan Motuev phenomen.

We are overly surprised by all the gossip in the news. But we have a whole generation of journalists who struggle with the facts. I am scared that soon, all our journalists will be illiterate.

But as I said, this is our common problem and we have to solve it together. It is useless to take a blameful stance.

  • You talked about the aim and standards of journalism. In all the trainings and seminars that I attended, we were repeatedly and restlessly told about balance, impartiality and all other types of criteria specific to journalism. But it’s hard to say that all these principles are applied. Is it just our reporters who are not adhering to journalistic standards, or can this be observed in foreign medias as well?

I cannot make such a categorical assessment. There is yellow journalism, and there is the serious press. Normal journalists do their work professionally. In Kyrgyzstan, we also have some excellent journalists, who follow these standards.

  • Is our society ready for press freedom?

This is not even discussed. Freedom of expression is not given to someone because the society is ready for it, or is not. Of course, it must be. But for this we must work on the quality of our media. For instance, we must not follow the path of Russian TV channels and propaganda.

  • Our journalism is independent, but do we have independent journalists?

Yes, we have independent journalists, but very few. Those who work for local branches of international news outlets, and those who live on foreign grants. These grants are given in support to press freedom and human rights.

In big newsroom there is a board that keeps an eye out for balance and accuracy, it is therefore almost impossible to carry out “orders” or broadcast propaganda. There are a lot of stereotypes in our society, including that on grant-based journalism. Such thoughts are dangerous, and every person must learn to think on their own.

Internet is also a great platform for those countries where there is no tradition of free press. In Russia there is this outlet, Kashin. A one man newsroom. Some journalists cannot work for big corporation, in any big newsroom. Their audience is often larger than that of one outlet . In this sense, internet gives freedom.

How this is used in Kyrgyzstan is yet another question. If you are a strong journalist, you can also stay independent.

  • You listed some media, but no local ones…

Yes, you are right. In 20 years we journalists have not come together to open our own newsroom, independent from government and donor money. This is like a market: it is easy to go from journalism to political PR – and it pays more.

  • Kyrgyzstan is in its transition period. In this regard, I have a question that comes to mind over and over again. I feel like the level of public consciousness and culture does not make way for freedom of speech…

… in its true meaning. Yes, I agree.

  • Then I have another question. In seminars in Bishkek and Osh, an Ethic code for Kyrgyz Journalism was roughly thought out. I was struck that after this, even the trainers did not behave themselves accordingly. What does this show? A lack of principles? Or the fact that press freedom and professional ethics are not accepted as a universal value?

I’m not sure what you are talking about, but if such is the case, then it is pitiful. I was recently at a conference with the respected Russian journalist Anna Kachaeva, and she said that regardless of modern technology a journalist must still think, write and have a conscience.

In Kyrgyzstan, we have a problem with this conscience. Kyrgyzstan is a small country. People, and especially journalists, forget, for example, that today there are elections, and yet they continue to be journalists. A lot of people can work under the wing of a politician, leaving behind their integrity and their honesty, and then start working again as journalists. For me this is very surprising, and it cannot bring along anything good.

  • In May we are entering the Customs Union. Does this mean we must give up on the idea of press freedom?

This is something I do not want to think about. Regardless of our will to cooperate with Russia (for example, our deputies copy Russian laws), Kyrgyzstan has lived independently for more than 20 years and follows, let’s say, its authentic path. I want to believe and this, and for this I will fight.

There may have been an iron curtain before, but now, in the time of internet, how is it possible to be physically cut off from the rest of the world? Again, I want to believe in this, and we must fight for such values as press freedom.

– For example, the press could fall to the level of propaganda…

This is a great threat and we are already under the hold of propaganda. Everyone here watches Pervii Kanal, RTR… Those who have internet at home fight with their children. I, for one, argue with my mother. For her, Putin is a hero, America the enemy and Ukrainians are fascists. Everything is black or white, there are no facts, no reason, simply propaganda.

  • What are your next plans?

My next plans, like every other Kyrgyz’s, are the elections (laughs). I haven’t written in a long time or presented a news program.

  • What would you say to Yntymak journalists and their audience?

Yntymak is a unique project that I fully support. It is a platform where real professionals can evolve and keep their independence. It is very unpleasant to write under the pressure of the mayor, for example, or some member of the opposition, and go against your own conscience. This is first.

Second, Yntymak was created and developed regardless of all the skepticism. Yntymak could talk about very sensitive issues with a normal human voice, avoiding both blame and mushiness, when the wound of the Osh events was still fresh.

I am sure that Yntymak will stay a good school for future journalists. What is at the basis of Yntymak is growing on to younger journalists, and this itself is remarkable.

Yntymak does quality journalism, classic reports, analysis… Everything so that people’s voices will echo throughout the world thanks to this platform – website, radio, TV. We journalists should never forget that we work for the audience. Yes there are new technologies and high speed internet, but there are also human beings and their problems, and we must talk to people about people.

(Aida Kassymalieva now presents KTRK’s talk show ‘Oi-Ordo”)

Original interview is here.

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