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Familiar patterns of harassment and obstruction, with new focus on curtailing 


By Gulnura Toralieva in Bishkek, Aslibegim Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe and Irina 
Stupakova in Almaty


Media-watchers in Central Asia say 2008 was a period of stagnation, with many 
of the remaining independent press, broadcast and internet outlets under 
mounting pressure from national governments. 


Internet publications faced particular problems in the past year as governments 
tried to rein in the new, less controlled forms of media. 


In its 2008 Press Freedom Index, the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters 
Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan near the bottom of its list, 
at 163rd and 171st place, respectively, out of 173. Kazakstan at 125 and 
Kyrgyzstan at 111 also scored poorly, while Tajikistan performed best of the 
five Central Asian states at 106th place. In the 2007 listing, Tajikistan was 
below Kyrgyzstan and its higher placing probably reflects a deterioration in 
the latter state's record than an actual improvement. 




Reporters and editors continued to face intimidation and pressure in 2008, 
ranging from physical attack to the use of criminal law to prosecute and 
imprison them. 


Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to be the worst offenders when it comes to 
locking up journalists who dare to work for independent media, which are almost 
by definition based abroad. 


"Despite the international community's initiatives and despite leadership 
changes, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to lag far behind Europe and the 
rest of the world in respect for freedom of news and information," Reporters 
Without Borders said in a September statement ahead of a security summit 
involving the EU and Central Asian states. "A high price is paid in these 
countries for any attempts at independent or critical reporting. Arrests, 
violence and harassment of journalists and their families are the methods 
habitually used by the authorities whenever they are criticised. 


In October, Uzbek journalist Solijon Abdurahmanov was sentenced to ten years in 
jail at the end of a trial in the northern city of Nukus. He was convicted of 
narcotics offences, but insisted the evidence was planted. The sentence, coming 
only three days after the European Union eased sanctions against Uzbekistan, 
was seen as a sign that the government had no plans to alter its repressive 
practices, and undermined hopes raised by the release of another journalist, 
Umida Niazova, earlier in the year. (See EU Eases Uzbek Sanctions Despite 
Reporter's Jailing , RCA No. 551, 13-Oct-08.) 


According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 
Abdurahmonov's arrest brought the number of journalists who were held in 
detention in 2008 in Uzbekistan to six. Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, 
noted that an RFE/RL correspondent was arrested and tortured in June, and that 
other journalists in Turkmenistan reported being "harassed more than ever". 


Even in Kyrgyzstan, the most liberal of the five Central Asian states, media 
workers felt increasingly under threat. 


Two journalists left Kyrgyzstan in 2008 after claiming they were being unjustly 
pressured by means of the judicial process. Babyrbek Jeebekov, editor of the 
Alibi newspaper, was arrested in September 2008 for failure to pay a fine 
imposed on his paper for publishing an article on corruption that a court found 
to have "presented false information". 


Cholpon Orozobekova, editor of another newspaper, De Facto, later left the 
country with her family to avoid the same thing happening to her. A court had 
imposed a large fine on her paper guilty, again in reference to an article on 
corruption. (For background, see Kyrgyz Libel Case Raises Protests, RCA No. 
548, 07-Jul-08.) 


Prosecutions for libel - still a criminal offence under Central Asian laws - 
continued to be used as a way of harassing and marginalising working 


"It is no secret to anyone that journalism is a dangerous profession," 
commented Cholpon Jakupova, who heads a legal advice centre in Bishkek, in an 
interview for the Institute of Public Policy. "The saddest thing is that in our 
country this profession is becoming even more dangerous." 


In Tajikistan, Nuriddin Karshiboev, chairman of the National Association of 
Independent Media, says that "this year saw a greater level of persecution for 
critical reporting than previous years". He added that "arrests and attacks on 
journalists were rare, which allowed the [Reporters Without Borders] 
organisation to give place Tajikistan highest ranking in Central Asia". 


In the last three years, there have been eight prosecutions for libel in 
Tajikistan, the majority relating to government officials. 


In August, a criminal libel case was opened against Tursunali Aliev, a veteran 
journalist from northern Tajikistan, in relation to a magazine article critical 
of local government officials. Karshiboev's group said this was a case of 
"deliberate persecution" by local police "acting on behalf of certain senior 
officials", and was designed to intimidate journalists. 


Later the same month, Jumaboy Tolibov of the Zarafshan Times newspaper got into 
trouble after a report alleging that valuables belonging to some of 15 people 
killed in a traffic accident went missing during a police investigation. He was 
charged with insulting a policeman. 


Media rights activists in Tajikistan have launched a campaign to remove libel 
from the criminal law statutes, so that it would only be a matter for the civil 
courts. (For more on this issue, see Tajik Media Activists Press for Libel Law 
Change, RCA No. No. 555, 07-Nov-08.) 


The suspension of local rebroadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the 
BBC in Kyrgyzstan in October-December were seen as another sign that the 
government wanted to curtail people's access to external sources of information 
at a time when the country faced a worsening economic situation. 


The national broadcaster NTRK, which carried the local transmissions of both 
RFE/RL and BBC programmes, insisted the stoppage was simply the result of 
contractual disagreements, although it also expressed concerns about RFE/RL's 
objectivity. (For more on this case, see Kyrgyzstan: Concern as Western 
Broadcasts Pulled Off Air, RCA No. 559, 22-Dec-08.) 




Independent media in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan responded to pressure 
in two ways - while some took a firm, at times defiant stand, others toned down 
their output to avoid irritating the authorities, or sought an accommodation 
with officialdom. 


"Over the last three or four years, a certain kind of stagnation has set in," 
said Kazakstan-based political analyst Sergei Duvanov. "Self-censorship 
mechanisms are already well-established." 


In countries like Kazakstan where non-state media exist alongside the 
government press, Duvanov said such outlets were often were run by "people who 
want to stay in the information market, so they simply switch into 
self-censorship mode and thereby avoid 'errors' that might negatively impact 
their publication and invite a tax inspection or another form of [intrusive] 
administrative action." 


He went on, "Everyone is now resigned to this - not just the conventional media 
but also opposition outlets. Journalists have accepted the rules of the game 
that the authorities have set out, and they play by them." 


Rajab Mirzo, chief editor at the Imruz radio station in Tajikistan, reported a 
similar situation there as media companies operated within unspoken boundaries. 
These restrictions, he said, consisted of "either self-censorship among 
journalists who avoid writing critical articles, or criteria set by bureaucrats 
who dictate which [senior] people are not to be touched." 


Some experts argue that some journalists working in the non-state media sector 
make themselves vulnerable to libel charges when they take an excessively 
aggressive stance against the powers that be. 


Marat Tokoev, head of Kyrgyzstan's non-government Public Association of 
Journalists, believes pro-opposition media often exaggerate in support of their 
backers' political views. 


Mukhtar Abilov, deputy editor of the Kyrgyz government newspaper Erkin Too, 
agrees, saying, "Our opposition media are only 50 per cent objective, and when 
they exaggerate things, the authorities are forced to protect themselves." 


Kazakstan and Tajikistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, are still in the fortunate 
position of having non-government media. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have no 
real independent news media, just state and quasi-state outlets. 


Given suggestions that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, elected in 
February 2007, might be steering Turkmenistan away from the repressive system 
of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, the lack of change in that country has 
been particularly disappointing. 


"We announced declared democratic changes but in reality everything stayed as 
it was before," commented one local journalist. "All the press is state 
controlled, and there isn't a single private TV or radio station.... Censorship 
is very strict," he said. 




Attempts by Central Asian governments to exert greater control over the 
internet - increasingly an important source of alternative information in the 
region - were among the more alarming trends of 2008. 


In Kazakstan, for example, it has been a legal requirement since 2001 to 
register websites with the authorities, but the outgoing year saw further 


"The trend in 2008 was continued tightening of the screws on information," said 
Vladislav Yuritsyn, a journalist with the online newspaper Zona.kz.net. 
"Internet was the last more or less free form of media, but the pressure 
mounted throughout the year." The media monitoring group Adil Soz notes that 
websites critical of the authorities in Kazakstan are liable to be blocked or 
made accessible only with difficulty. In some cases web users find themselves 
directed to what looks like the real thing but is in fact a specially created 
fraudulent site containing modified information. 


Yuritsyn noted that as part of their efforts to control the web, the Kazak 
authorities are trying to make website owners liable for content such as blogs, 
reader comments and discussion forums. As he put it, "The prosecution service 
treats an internet newspaper's own editorial copy and the comments submitted by 
readers as if they formed an integral whole." 


Attempts to bring internet sites under tighter control have also been made in 
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 


Alisher Sabirov, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament, has proposed a bill that 
would subject websites to the same regulation as conventional media, 
specifically requiring them to apply for official registration with the 
national authorities. 


In an interview for the Bishkek-based Institute for Public Policy, Sabirov 
explained that he was mainly worried by sites that in his view incited 
hostility between different ethnicities, faiths or regions. 


Neighbouring Tajikistan has since 2007 treated internet outlets the same as 
print and broadcast media when it comes to defamation. 


Once again, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are special cases. The governments 
there already make a practice of scrutinising and closing domestically-owned 
sites at will, so their main concern is information seeping in from websites 
based abroad. To combat this, their security services deploy a range of 
techniques including blocking undesirable news sites and monitoring email 
traffic to identify journalists who may be freelancing for what they deem 
hostile outside media. 




Both Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan amended their media laws in 2008 - but certainly 
not for the better, according to critics. 


Media rights groups said the amended Kazak media law, passed by parliament in 
November, was a disappointment as it failed to stop libel being punishable 
under criminal law. However, the changes did at least shift some of the burden 
of proof away from journalists charged with defamation. In the past, the 
accused had to prove conclusively that his or her allegations were true, which 
made it easy for officials accused of various abuses to win such cases. (See 
Kazak Reform Bills Offer Little New, RCA No. 557, 21-Nov-08.) 


In addition, as Information and Culture Minister Mukhtar Kul-Muhammed noted, 
the amendments mean reporters will no longer be required to ask permission 
before using audio or video equipment to conduct an interview. 


Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, agreed this was a step in 
the right direction but added, "It would be exaggerating to suggest that 
removing a draconian clause represents a serious step towards democracy." 


In Kyrgyzstan, a new law signed by president in June put an end to a project to 
transform the state TV and radio company NTRK into a more independent 
public-service broadcaster. Critics said this it took the country back to a 
situation where the president has too much power over the media. 


Another defect in the bill, they say, is that it will make it almost impossible 
for local TV channels to survive as they must now generate half their material 
themselves rather than buying it in, and they must also ensure that 50 per cent 
of their broadcasting is in Kyrgyz rather than Russian. (See Kyrgyz Media Bill 
Goes Back to Square One, RCA No. 544, 02-May-08.) 


Gulnura Toralieva is regional media coordinator with the BBC World Service 
Trust in Bishkek. Aslibegim Manzarshoeva and Irina Stupakova are IWPR-trained 
contributors in Dushanbe and Almaty, respectively. 


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