The news media are under severe duress in virtually all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the former Soviet republics of Central Asia this condition is particularly acute.
The troubled state of Central Asia's news media is put into perspective by data from Freedom House's annual survey of press freedom. All of these countries fall into the category of "not free." Most disturbing, however, is the countries' trajectory. All of these lands, save Tajikistan whose ratings have improved since the end of that country's violent civil war, now enjoy less press freedom than they did a decade ago.
The tools of media manipulation and control range from the subtle to the brutal. Already marginalized independent media confront a range of obstacles, from unusually vigilant tax inspectors to physical violence, including the killing of journalists.
This systematic abuse results in a massive information gap that warps the development of these societies and deprives its citizens of the free flow of information that can bring about democratic progress.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the state television broadcast facility was of particular interest to protesters in Kyrgyzstan, who last month jettisoned the regime of then-President Askar Akaev. The protesters' taking of the airwaves released the information spigot that had been all but closed to the opposition during campaign leading up to the recent flawed parliamentary elections.
The authorities in Tajikistan, which also held parliamentary elections in February 2005, undertook their own campaign to rein in media. Citing alleged tax violations, the authorities shut down several newspapers, including "Adolat," "Odamu Olam," and "Ruzi No." Peter Eicher, chief of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said of the Tajik authorities' treatment of the news media that "it seems to represent a pattern of government interference with independent media and this has an effect which undermines democratic elections."
On the heels of recent events in the neighborhood, Uzbek authorities have reportedly initiated criminal proceedings against Internews, a media assistance organization, signaling another effort to limit independent media development in that highly closed country.
Turkmenistan, among the most repressive states in the world, is sui generis. The government controls all media, which is used principally as an instrument to promote the personality cult of the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The authorities in these countries seek to manage the news and deny information to their citizens with good reason. Without exception, the news on these regimes' governance performance is not good. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authorities in all five former Soviet Central Asian republics have been mired in corruption and unable to deliver essential political goods to their people.
Central Asia needs its own information revolution, which would be a key catalyst for moving forward the democratic reform process.
Shining a light on these problems would of course have a salutary impact. A free flow of news and information could precipitate a demand for greater responsiveness to societal needs. Such responsiveness is, however, something Central Asian leadership has shown little capacity or willingness to entertain. As events in Georgia, Ukraine and, now, Kyrgyzstan tell us, average citizens already have come to expect better governance from their leaders, despite the best efforts of these very same leaders to keep them in the dark.
The main features of media control include deep involvement of presidential family and close associates in ownership and management positions at broadcast and print news organizations.
In Kyrgyzstan, independent broadcasters have been virtually all owned or under the control of forces close to President Akaev, including his son-in-law and other family members. The print press has been a similar story, frequently practicing self-censorship in its political coverage.
Kazakhstan boasts a more modern media landscape, but print and broadcast outlets of import are owned or controlled by financial interests and parties affiliated with the regime. President Nursultan Nazarbaev's daughter, Dariga Nazerbaeva, controls major television channels. She also exerts significant influence over several major newspapers.
To meet the range of serious challenges that loom - corruption, economic development, and security among them - Central Asia needs its own information revolution, which would be a key catalyst for moving forward the democratic reform process. Events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan suggest that the democratic impulse has real traction. Despite the best efforts to control information, word of mouth and new technology is inexorably conspiring to spread the word about democratic developments, even to the most remote corners of the former Soviet space.
Unlike in the Middle East, the citizens of Central Asia do not enjoy access to the dynamic and catalytic media outlets the likes of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya that are beamed via satellite into households throughout the politically repressive Mideast region.
This suggests that Central Asia's media reform will need to take root from within.
Toward this end, on 1 April 2005 Kyrgyzstan's media and NGO community made a public appeal for the creation of a working group that would draft legislation to establish independent public television and radio. The transformation of the country's state-controlled National TV and Radio Corporation into a genuinely independent, public station would set a valuable precedent in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, expectations are very high, perhaps unreasonably so, for achieving swift and comprehensive reforms. Kyrgyz citizens and the outside world alike should hold no illusions about the magnitude of this challenge. The recent turn of events in Kyrgyzstan, as regards the media sector, could represent an important first step and sorely needed breath of fresh air on what is now a grim information landscape.
(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.)