WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 560, 06 January 2009
ANOTHER DEPRESSING YEAR FOR CENTRAL ASIAN MEDIA Familiar patterns of
harassment and obstruction, with new focus on curtailing internet. By Gulnura
Toralieva in Bishkek, Aslibegim Manzarshoeva in Dushanbe and Irina Stupakova in
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ANOTHER DEPRESSING YEAR FOR CENTRAL ASIAN MEDIA
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.
PROSECUTION AND INTIMIDATION
Reporters and editors continued to face intimidation and pressure in 2008,
ranging from physical attack to the use of criminal law to prosecute and
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.
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.)
SELF-CENSORSHIP AS DEFENCE MECHANISM
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
"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]
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.
INTERNET UNDER CLOSER SCRUTINY
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
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.
MEDIA LAWS CHANGED BUT NOT IMPROVED
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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