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Today is the UN-declared World Press Freedom Day, an annual observance meant to highlight the importance of a free press for civil societies. In the second-part of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at press freedom in Central Asia. There, governments have often resorted to "hidden" forms of censorship -- such as restricting news organizations' access to printing houses or broadcast frequencies -- to keep dissenting voices from being heard. But journalists and activists are finding new ways to get their messages heard, including by turning to the Internet. The Internet is still far from being a mass medium in Central Asia but it is becoming an increasingly influential forum for exchanging news and opinions.
Prague, 3 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Internet is not accessible to most people in Central Asia. Yet it still has managed to become an important medium in the region.
One reason is that it exerts a powerful influence on conventional media -- newspapers, television, and radio. Reporters often turn to the Internet as they search for material and the ideas expressed there can sometimes inspire major news stories or investigations.
Julien Pain works on freedom of expression on the Internet at the media-rights group Reporters Without Borders in Paris. He said that: "In Central Asia the penetration rate of the Internet is pretty low. So one would think this medium is not very important. However we see that in these countries lots of scandals, important affairs, have come out in the Internet first and then in traditional media. The reason is simple: in countries with rather authoritarian regimes, it is easier to control traditional media than the Internet, where dissents can express themselves more freely."
For example, five years ago in Kazakhstan the Internet site eurasia.org.ru published the first report on what became known as "Kazakhgate," a corruption scandal involving President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The Internet surfaced again as an important player during the recent Kyrgyz parliamentary elections -- important enough to attract direct attacks from parties trying to censor it. Websites belonging to Kyrgyz opposition parties and independent media were subject to hacking -- attempts by outside programmers to tamper with the content of a website -- or to mysterious technical problems. Several political websites were defaced.
Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of the independent "Res Publica" newspaper, says other attacks included the sending of fake messages to divide the opposition: "Such e-mail messages with rumors and defamation articles were by well-known websites such as gazeta.kg, centrasia.ru, and so on."
It is unclear to what extent Central Asian governments actively try to control Internet content.
Eric Johnson, director of Internews International, an association of media support NGOs, says there is no strict government control on content in Central Asia. "They're worried about the Internet, but they don't perceive it as a major, major threat," he said. "So, they don't try terribly hard to control it. The governments' attempt to control content is weak and ineffective."
Daniil Kislov, the founder of the Russia-based Internet information agency ferghana.ru, says censorship in Uzbekistan usually targets certain pages. "They don't block the whole site, for example access to the addresses ferghana.ru, centrasia.ru or free.uz," he said. "What they decide to block -- most likely the authorities -- are individual articles they consider as being on the opposition side, or a threat to the constitutional order, or against the state. However you [must judge whether] any of the sites have such purposes."
Johnson says Internet users can easily get around government efforts to control content. In Uzbekistan for instance, some websites are blocked in certain Internet cafes but not in others.
Yuriy Misinov, chief editor of the Kazakh online website Navigator, says the use of proxies accessible on the web is also a way around Internet filtering. "Kazakh Telecom blocks the site Eurasia and it's possible to open it through proxies only," he said.
The government denies such charges.
Farhat Ilyasov, a Turkmen sociologist living in Moscow, says restrictions on the Internet are much stronger in Turkmenistan. He says citizens there are not allowed to connect to the Internet from home, and there are no Internet cafes.
"This policy of restricting Internet access is caused by the regime's desire to increase the information blockade, and prevent people from receiving any information containing any criticism of the existing Turkmen regime," he said.
Analysts say a major barrier to the Internet becoming a mass medium in Central Asia are technical illiteracy, the low level of computerization, and the cost of Internet connections.
Johnson notes that while governments have not actively tried to control content, they also are not creating an atmosphere to foster the development of the Internet: "The main way in which they prevent the Internet from becoming a more important force for information distribution [with] potential political repercussions is simply by not pro-actively trying to make sure that people have access. That means issues like government monopoly over international data transmission. Every time you have a monopoly, costs are higher. And those higher costs get transferred on to the consumers."
Even in Kazakhstan, the most economically developed country in the region, not more than 2 percent of the population has access to the Internet.
Despite the low regional penetration of the Internet, journalists writing for this medium face the same threat as those writing for conventional source of information.
In Uzbekistan, Ulugbek Khaidarov was badly beaten by an unidentified individual on 23 April in the Uzbek city of Jizzakh.
Reporters Without Borders suggests the attack is directly linked to recent articles Haidarov wrote on the Internet criticizing local authorities.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen and Kyrgyz Services contributed to this report.)