administration will continue liberalisation.  By Timur Toktonaliev

CENTRAL ASIA'S "TROLL WARS"  Anonymous web postings used to counter
online dissent through argument, distraction or abusive comments.  By
Almaz Rysaliev, Yulia Goryaynova, Dina Tokbaeva, Lola Olimova,
Bakhtiyor Rasulov

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Unclear whether new administration will continue liberalisation.

By Timur Toktonaliev

Kyrgyzstan has climbed more than 50 places on the latest Press Freedom
Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, RSF, although the media
rights group notes that the improved situation is still “very

Despite the improvements, media-watchers say too many attacks on
journalists still go unpunished, and the country’s parliament seems to
be quietly trying to impose tighter controls on reporting.

The Central Asian state was ranked at 108, up from 159 last year. Its
nearest rival in the region was Tajikistan, 14 places behind in 122nd
place. Kazakstan came 154th and Uzbekistan 157th in the index, while
Turkmenistan was third from the bottom at 177th, beating only North
Korea and Eritrea.

Analysts attribute Kyrgyzstan’s improvement to media-friendly
government policies in 2011, following a year that saw previous
president Kurmanbek Bakiev ousted, and widespread ethnic violence in
the south.

“The media freedom situation nonetheless continues to be very fragile,
with physical attacks on journalists and repressive initiatives in
parliament,” RSF said.

Maria Rasner, director of the Internews Network in Kyrgyzstan, said
the much better rating the country was given in the Press Freedom
Index issued in January was partly thanks to Roza Otunbaeva, who
served as interim president from April 2010 to December 2011, and
relaxed the state’s grip on the media

“She left the media in peace, did not impose her own demands, and did
not attempt to take control over them. The same goes for officials
around her,” Rasner told IWPR, adding that the abolition of defamation
as a criminal offence in July 2011 was also a positive development.

Nonetheless, Rasner warned against complacency, saying Kyrgyzstan’s
improved rating was also a result of media freedom getting worse
elsewhere. As authoritarian governments clamp down on journalists in
the wake of unrest in the Arab world, they have slipped down the
ranking and thus propelled Kyrgyzstan upwards, she said.

“It is not easy for free media in a situation like this. It is almost
a natural response of any regime when it is threatened to tighten the
screws,” she said.

The Kyrgyz government needs to do more to investigate attacks on
journalists and further liberalise media legislation, she said.

Journalists were targeted in a wave of attacks and threatening
incidents last year in the capital Bishkek and in the southern city of
Osh, according to RSF.

In May 2011, two women threatened Reuters correspondent Hulkar Isamova
with a knife and accused her of supporting an Uzbek community leader
wanted by the authorities. Three days prior to that incident, a dozen
people burst into a news agency office in Osh, threatening staff and
accusing them of being spies for Uzbekistan.

Also in May, a correspondent with the Russian news agency Interfax,
Jyldyz Bekbaeva, was hospitalied in Osh after being attacked by two
men and two women while returning home with her two-year-old daughter.
And in the following days Samat Asipov, a political TV reporter, was
taken to hospital after three men beat him up.

Two state TV and radio journalists were also threatened by petrol
smugglers after reporting on the black market in fuel.

Rasner said it was worrying that the Kyrgyz authorities ignored such
incidents or failed to investigate them properly.

“Either the MVD [interior ministry] thinks these are politicised cases
and is afraid to solve them, or it just doesn’t want any more
trouble,” she said.

There are also concerns that Kyrgyzstan;s parliament tried to silence
journalists covering sensitive stories in 2011.

In June 2011, parliament ordered the ministries of culture and justice
and the prosecution service, to block access to online news agency
Ferghana.ru following its coverage of the ethnic violence a year

The prosecutor general has not enforced the ban, saying technical
problems make it impossible.

In September, parliament temporarily revoked the accreditation of
journalists at the Channel Five after the TV station investigated
legislators for alleged misuse of public funds. Channel Five’s
problems continued in October, when parliament passed adopted a bill
to nationalise the station and dedicate it to full-time parliamentary

Station staff have so far managed to ignore the decision and have
continued broadcasting as before.

In November, parliament adopted a law scrapping an independent
oversight council regulating the public-service broadcaster OTRK,
ignoring criticism that this would lead to greater state interference
and censorship.

It is unclear whether Kyrgyzstan will continue to improve press
freedom, or will drift in a more repressive direction.

Otunbaeva was replaced in December by newly-elected President Almazbek
Atambaev, who previously served as her prime minister.

While this was the first democratic handover of power in any Central
Asian state, Rasner is uncertain about its implications for press

“At the moment everyone is watching to see the behaviour of the new
president and his circle. How will parliament behave with the new
balance of power?” Rasner said.

Kanybek Osmonaliev, chairman of the parliamentary committee dealing
with the media, told IWPR that legislators took freedom of the press

Journalists’ safety is a concern, he said, and parliament is planning
a special session where it will press prosecutors and police on the

Asked about the regulatory framework for OTRK, Osmonaliev said there
was no plan to replace the oversight council with a tame regulator.
The interim government and parliament had taken differing views on
OTRK, he said, but members of the new oversight body would be selected
in a transparent and fair manner.

Osmonaliev said a parliamentary commission was still considering
turning Channel Five into a public station, but no longer wanted it to
cover parliament full time, he said. As for moves to block
Ferghana.ru, he conceded that they were excessive.

“This is not how we should build our relationship with the private
media,” he said, though he added that media outlets also need to
ensure responsible reporting.

Several journalists told IWPR that they thought NGOs should be doing
more to protect journalists’ interests.

Tamara Valieva, a television journalist with 15-years experience, said
that while there were various organisations claiming to represent
journalists, she could not remember them ever intervening to help
reporters in difficulty. In addition, the Russian- and Kyrgyz-language
sections of the media tended to keep themselves to themselves.

In the coming months, media freedom is likely to be low on the agenda
as attention focuses on local council elections in March. Rasner said
journalists should begin taking greater responsibility for their own

“Journalists should learn to be more proactive in protecting their
rights,” she said.

Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor for Kyrgyzstan.


Anonymous web postings used to counter online dissent through
argument, distraction or abusive comments.

By Almaz Rysaliev, Yulia Goryaynova, Dina Tokbaeva, Lola Olimova,
Bakhtiyor Rasulov

It’s a common pattern on Central Asian internet forums. Members are
discussing subversive opinions they would not dare express elsewhere
when a new arrival pops up and enthusiastically proclaims the
government’s virtues or lambasts its critics.

This is the world of Central Asia’s pro-government “internet trolls”
–anonymous commentators who mysteriously appear to defend the
authorities whenever they are criticised on social networking or news

Governments in the region have long exerted tight controls on
dissenting opinions, but as more and more young people access the
internet, holding the lid down is getting harder.

Many suspect that the authorities’ response has been to recruit and
pay tech-savvy citizens to defend the government’s position, bully
critics, and attempt to rewrite history online.

Tactics include crude abuse from online troublemakers in Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan to more sophisticated spoiling attempts in Kazakstan,
and online campaigns in Kyrgyzstan that are more like professional
public relations exercises.

The unifying feature is anonymity, preserved behind internet
pseudonyms, and a desire to establish a pro-government narrative.


In Uzbekistan, the trolling phenomenon is closely linked to the
National Security Service, which entered the fray online after the
2005 Andijan violence in which government forces gunned down hundreds
of protestors.

“After Andijan, when... liberal thought and ideas were harshly
suppressed, the secret service strengthened its trolling effort,” a
software programmer in the capital Tashkent said.

With the international community pressuring the government to provide
answers, the trolls attempted to repair the reputational damage,
albeit mainly by abusing critics and trying to dilute and confuse the

Bahodir, an internet user in Uzbekistan, says that even today,
whenever the Andijan killings are mentioned online, a barrage of
comments appears blaming the bloodshed on Islamic terrorists.

According to Bahodir, “They become particularly active during
important political events or upheavals. They pretend to be ordinary
people telling the public that things are completely different from
how journalists have reported them.”

Amongst a population of 28 million, some 27 per cent of Uzbeks have
access to the internet, according to the United States-based

When upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East last spring
provoked debate among Uzbekistan’s cyber-community, anonymous
pro-government comments also appeared on the web. Similar postings
appeared in defence of President Islam Karimov’s daughter Lola
Karimova-Tillaeva, when she lost a libel suit in Paris last year over
an article describing her as a dictator’s daughter.

Bahodir said the similar language and arguments coming from ostensibly
separate posters suggested they were either centrally organised, or in
fact person.

A freelance reporter in Tashkent said the security service sometimes
hired journalists in the state media to pose as anonymous

News sites covering Uzbekistan from abroad, such as as uznews.net,
centrasia.ru, ca-news.org and RFE/RL’s Uzbek-language ozodlik.org are
often targeted.

“If a mass of critical comments is on the rise, there will always be
several people who start hurling insults at participants in the
discussion... and calling our radio journalists traitors,” Alisher
Siddikov, editor-in-chief of the Uzbek service at RFE/RL in Prague,
said. “The trolls stand out for being very rude in their comments and
for presenting the same kinds of arguments.”

The trolls are gradually evolving more sophisticated ways of waging
online war. According to one user who goes by the name Mega, angry,
foul language aimed at derailing discussions used to be a clear
giveaway, but since websites introduced tougher moderation, the focus
has shifted to undermining the reputations of journalists or their
news organisations.

According to one Tashkent-based media expert, the latest method is not
to simply deny that problems exist in Uzbekistan, but to argue that
the government is working to overcome difficulties.

In a typical recent posting on a news website, a user identifying
himself as “Nazar” defended President Islam Karimov on January 30 this
year, his 74th birthday. Responding to complaints about electricity
and gas shortages, Nazar wrote, “Who can replace [Karimov]? No one,
practically. Who is to blame for what is happening in Uzbekistan? We
are all to blame. Karimov is not an angel, that’s for sure. But who
else can protect the country... from collapse and civil war?”


In neighbouring Turkmenistan, fewer people have access to the internet
– only 1.6 per cent of a population of five million are online,
according to internetworldstats.com.

But trolls still operate, congregating especially around
Russian-language social networking sites. One of the most popular of
these is Odnoklassniki, based in Russia but popular in many of the
former Soviet states.

An internet user in Turkmenistan said the site was popular in the
country, but it is impossible to holding a discussion on domestic
issues. If Turkmen nationals living in Russia even try to discuss the
difficulty of getting a visa to return home, they find themselves
bombarded with abuse.

Foreign bloggers on Turkmenistan have also been targeted. Bektour
Iskender, a well-known journalist in Kyrgyzstan, has received
intimidating messages from one frequent visitor to his blog, demanding
that he stop writing about Turkmenistan.


In Kazakstan, the authorities exert control over conventional
broadcast and print media and have blocked opposition websites, but
have found it more difficult to stop young people from airing their
grievances online.

Nearly 35 per cent of the country’s 16 million people access the
internet, making it one of the most connected countries in the region.
There are 362,000 registered Facebook users in the country, and the
social networking site is often used to criticise the government.

Rather than simply denouncing critics, the authorities have recognised
the importance of promoting their own views online.

“The state views the internet as an additional platform where it needs
to bolster its positive image,” civil society activist Alexander
Danilov said.

In early January, a blogger posted what he claimed was an internet
conversation in which the editor of a government news agency asked him
to post pro-government comments on websites. The editor allegedly
offered him about 170 US dollars for one month’s work writing about
the January 15 parliamentary election, and about the December
bloodshed in the western town of Janaozen.

Sixteen demonstrators were killed and more than 100 were injured in
Janaozen on December 16, when police opened fire on protesting oil
industry workers.

The blogger declined the editor’s offer, noting that he had already
written in defence of the protestors.

Banu Nurgazieva, head of public affairs at Kazakstan’s culture and
information ministry, denied that the authorities were behind such
campaigns, a suggestion she dismissed as “nonsense.”

“I would know about the existence of such a practice if it were true.
Where would the money come from? Every expense needs to be allocated
in the budget,” Nurgazieva said.

She said supporters of the government were fully entitled to post
their views online.

“These days everyone has a computer, and everyone can write whatever
comes to mind on their own initiative. That cannot be prohibited,” she

In an RFE/RL interview on February 6, Alexander Lyakhov, deputy head
of the Internet Association of Kazakstan, argued that opposition
groups also used trolling techniques.

Zhanna Prashkevich, a PR consultant, says only a tiny percentage of
postings are the work of trolls out to make trouble. Very often the
posters are employed by businesses or politicians to praise them
online and attempt to shape public opinion in their favour.


Although under ten per cent of Tajikistan’s population has internet
access, social networking sites are snowballing in popularity.
Russian-language websites attract many young Tajiks, and 2011 saw the
number of Facebook users go from under 10,000 to over 27,000,
according to internetworldstats.com.

Facebook pages sometimes host heated debates on Tajik politics, but
the response of government supporters is often to call for moderation,
according to Fazliddin Nasreddinov, who uses the site.

Nasreddinov says the moment anyone calls for radical political change
in Tajikistan, “there are always several people out there who start
saying that we don’t need things like that, that we need to be able to
reach a consensus, that we need to take an evolutionary approach”.

Mahmuhdjon Saraev of the Tajik presidential office’s information unit,
said government officials do not initiate online debates themselves
and did not participate in them.

At the same time, he said, “I’m not saying we’re unaware of what
topics are being discussed in such groups. We do know and we do see.”

Saraev suggested that contentious issues were often raised by people
posting from outside Tajikistan.

Some are concerned that users are being subtly manipulated through
Facebook pages. Parvina Ibodova, chair of the Association of Internet
Providers in Tajikistan, recalled how subscribers to a 1,500-strong
Facebook page suggested staging an anti-Moscow demonstration,
following news reports about the murder of Tajiks by skinheads in

“Ten or 15 people went to stage the protest, but they discovered that
those who had suggested it were not among them,” she said.

The protestors believed they were being used by agents provocateurs,
although it was unclear who might have been pulling the strings,
Ibodova said.


In Kyrgystan, where freedom of expression is generally greater than in
other Central Asian states, there have also been attempts to control
internet use, but to a lesser extent. The country has the highest
level of internet access in Central Asia, with nearly 40 per cent of
its 5.5 million people online.

Anonymous, foul-mouthed abuse of government opponents is largely a
thing of the past, and pro-government internet users tend to be
sophisticated and tech-savvy, and combine PR skills with a genuine
interest in politics.

Media analysts believe there are probably only 25 to 30 people acting
as trolls for the government, and they tend to operate in groups.
According to Sergei Makarov, founder of the New Media Institute, many
work on a freelance basis, are in their late twenties, and have jobs
as journalists, lawyers, economists or businessmen. They tend to be
educated and politically aware, albeit with no particular political
allegiance, and can charge between 200 and 700 dollars for an internet

“The trolls are a very closed group. They don’t talk about their
work,” Makarov said, though he added that the Kyrgyz blogosphere was
so small that “everyone knows everyone else”.

Sultan Kanazarov, head of the government’s information policy unit,
notes that many politicians have a fully transparent internet
presence, where they or their assistants engage with the public and
promote their policies.

In Kyrgyzstan, anonymous posters do not just respond to existing news,
they also help set the agenda, leaking stories that the media then

Yulia Barabina, who heads the press office of former presidential
candidate Jenishbek Nazaraliev, said any political event could trigger
a surge in anonymous posts, including elections, government
appointments and political disputes. These internet campaigns are used
by all political parties, not just the government.

“During the 2010 [parliamentary] election, trolls for virtually all
the main players were visible on many Russian- and Kyrgyz-language
websites,” she said. “Sometimes they engaged in open confrontation
with each other, leading to real ‘troll wars’.”

These exchanges threw up allegations about candidates, some of which
might have been fabricated, others perhaps true.

“For voters and [internet] users who followed the debates and watched
the process, it was an opportunity to find out things about candidates
that they might not have known before,” Barabina said.

However, one “professional poster” acknowledged that some of the false
information about politicians did spread uncertainty and confusion.

During the 2010 parliamentary election, an apparently leaked phone
conversation showed one politician in an unflattering light. While it
was fairly obvious that the conversation had at least been edited and
may even have been a hoax, it was still damaging because it planted
seeds of doubt about him, this source said.

More experienced internet users have learned to identify trolls and
ignore them, but they are not always easy for everyone to spot if they
are able to craft a sophisticated argument designed to derail a
sensitive political debate.

One expert on the subject said that while politicians found internet
activism alluring, it might have less of an effect on public opinion
than they believed, since at best they could only hope that trolls
would “control the flow of gossip and rumour” in their favour.

Anonymous posting is also getting more difficult. Many new websites
have introduced safeguards preventing one person from holding a host
of different online identities. This prevents would-be trolls from
creating the illusion of a popular, public pro-government response.
One of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular web forums, Diesel, now has a
month-long waiting period for each new registered user.

While the trolls may be here to stay, they are no deterrent to young
Central Asians seeking a more democratic community online.

Cholponbek, a resident of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, said he
expresses himself on the internet rather than joining street protests.

“I can say what I think, find like-minded people, engage in
discussions with them, and also debate with people who hold different
views,” he said, adding that anonymous postings did not influence his

“What’s really important to me is that this freedom exists, at least
on the internet.... It’s a place where people can let off steam,” he
said. “If this opportunity ceased to exist, I don’t know what would

(Some names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.)

Yulia Goryaynova is an IWPR editor based in Bishkek and covering
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in
Tajikistan; Bakhtiyor Rasulov is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor
in Uzbekistan; Almaz Rysaliev is IWPR editor in Kazakstan; Dina
Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor based in Kyrgyzstan.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a
unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local
journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across
Central Asia on a weekly basis.

The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty,
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IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund.
The service is published online in English and Russian.

The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the
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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Senior Editor
and Acting Managing Editor: John MacLeod; Central Asia Programme
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