Prague, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia is singled out as one of the worst regions for abuse of media freedoms, in a report just issued by the Paris-based media monitoring organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The report was issued to mark International Press Freedom Day, which falls today, 3 May.
RSF regional specialist Caroline Giraud told RFE/RL that conditions are bad for working journalists right across the Central Asian region, but that in some countries -- namely Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- they are at their worst.
"What is not evident, and what is the biggest problem in this area, is self-censorship."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Giraud said that journalists are subject to a wide range of pressures throughout Central Asia. Apart from outright physical threats and intimidation, the authorities use more subtle pressures. These include harassment of individuals and organizations on various legal grounds, including for even minor administrative infringements. All this creates an atmosphere which is difficult for media workers to cope with.
"What is not evident, and what is the biggest problem in this area, is self-censorship. Journalists really [are afraid] to deal with some issues such as corruption of officials, and those who do get personally targeted, or their media gets targeted, so this is a really big problem which is difficult to fight against," Giraud said.
RSF says international pressure is very important to help improve the situation. Western countries with economic interests in Central Asia should use their financial involvement as a lever. For instance, Giraud cited the example of the European Union and the United States, which are believed to have exerted pressure on the Kazakh authorities last year in the case of jailed journalist Sergei Duvanov. Duvanov was conditionally released from prison early this year.
In another case in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev eventually rejected a restrictive new media law which had been heavily criticized by international organizations and foreign governments.
Turning to the individual countries of the Central Asia region, Giraud said Turkmenistan, under President Saparmurat Niyazov, is the most repressive of the former Soviet republics. "The worst situation is in Turkmenistan, where there is absolutely no press freedom anywhere," she said. "It is very difficult for journalists to work at all."
The RSF report says that the Turkmen state controls both television and print media, and foreign periodicals are banned from distribution, In addition, defaming or insulting the president is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
The second-worst republic in terms of press freedom, according to RSF, is Uzbekistan. "Formally, censorship was abolished [in Uzbekistan] two years ago, but it is still applied in reality, and we have seen during this past year some worsening of the situation. [We note in the report that] a journalist and human rights defender, Ruslan Sharipov, has been jailed, and we consider that jailing him was a way to hamper his work," Giraud said.
Sharipov was arrested and convicted of homosexuality at a closed-door trial.
Kazakhstan has the most developed private press in Central Asia, but many of the organizations are owned by people close to President Nazarbaev, calling their independence into question.
The media in Tajikistan, meanwhile, has had a hard time developing following the country's devastating civil war. Giraud said the government does not help the media, and has been refusing broadcasting licenses to radio and television stations for years. And that is just the beginning. "The biggest problem in Tajikistan is that almost 30 journalists have been killed during the civil war, and very few cases have been solved; there is a great amount of intimidation in this country," she said.
At the better end of the scale is Kyrgyzstan, which has had the reputation of the "good student" in Central Asia. But even there, there has been a deterioration in the past year, according to RSF. Juridical harassment of opposition and independent newspapers is widespread, and in some cases has forced the closure of newspapers. Typically, the pressure would take the form of court cases brought by officials on grounds of defamation or insult.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan is illustrated by an open letter sent on 30 April by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights to the Kyrgyz interior minister and prosecutor-general. The letter notes that the son of Zamira Sydykova, the editor of the newspaper "Respublika," was badly beaten in Bishkek last month by a gang of men.
The Helsinki Federation says Sydykova believes the attack was deliberately staged because of recent articles in "Respublika" criticizing corruption among Interior Ministry officials.