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Central Asia: Bureaucratic Obstacles Hinder Journalists

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakh journalist Saya Issa was arrested in October 2005 as his country prepared for a presidential election (RFE/RL) Governments in Central Asia have developed numerous means of harassing media organizations and journalists. Using their control of legislatures and the courts, the authorities in all five Central Asian countries have shown at times an eagerness to stifle the efforts on independent reporters.


PRAGUE, April 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "Today, there is such a situation that the [Uzbek] government has put all of the media under its control. After the events in Andijon, the authorities understood that the independent press is, one could say, their main enemy," says Galima Bukharbaeva, an Uzbek journalist who fled the country because of her independent reporting after the May 2005 violence in Andijon.


Similar attitudes prevail in neighboring Turkmenistan, where all media is state-controlled.


Authorities in the Central Asian countries that do have independent media have shown an alarming tendency to use the law to stifle unwanted views.


Writing The Laws


In Tajikistan, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) organized a group of journalists in 2003 to discuss reforms to the country's media laws. Nuriddin Qarshiboev, director of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT) said the group recommended amendments to the media laws but their comments fell upon deaf ears in the parliament.


"Journalists gathered from around the country to draft new laws, but parliament didn't accept any," Qarshiboev said. "There were many suggestions about changes to the [media] laws, but none were adopted."


Tajikistan, which will hold a presidential election in November, further tightened control over the media last year. Parliament passed a law that obligates foreign embassies and organizations working in Tajikistan to report all contacts with the media or political or civil activists.


Enforcing The Laws


In all the Central Asian countries, the authorities are able to manipulate the courts to make sure the harsh laws are applied as they deem appropriate. Journalists are regularly in courtrooms in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and -- before the ouster of President Askar Akaev last year -- in Kyrgyzstan, defending their stories.


Oliver Money-Kyrle, director of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, said the independent media cannot expect much from the judicial systems in the Central Asian states.


"The quality of the judiciary and the fact that they are essentially corrupt and in the hands of, or controlled by, local government," Money-Kyrle said.


Tamara Kaleeva, executive director of Adil Soz, the International Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech in Kazakhstan, agrees.


"We have a serious problem with judicial persecution of the media," Kaleeva said. "These are criminal cases and the biggest obstacle we see from year to year are civil and administrative cases [against the media], mainly accusations of insulting the honor and dignity [of government officials] and the crazy, astronomical fines imposed for 'moral damage.'"


These fines are often exorbitant enough to cause the closure of independent media outlets. Accusations of unpaid taxes or irregularities in a media outlet's registration are also given common reasons for closing down independent media.


The Region's Bright Spot


Kyrgyzstan is the brightist spot in Central Asia, although its record is far from unblemished. When Kurmanbek Bakiev became president last year he vowed to make all media in Kyrgyzstan independent. Media groups have recently complained that Bakiev has not followed through on that pledge.


Staff of a Kyrgyz independent television station demonstrate in parliament in December (RFE/RL)

Rina Prijivoit worked for years as an independent journalist in Kyrgyzstan. Her newspaper was closed down several times by court decisions in the Akaev era yet always managed to reappear under a new name. She is now Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. She praised Bakiev's media policies.


"In the republic...are 900 media outlets registered: 631 newspapers, 191 magazines, 35 radio, 39 television stations, 25 broadcast companies, and more than 1,000 websites working," Prijivoit said. "Illegal restrictions have been lifted on the right to peaceful rallies and demonstrations. The opposition press is not experiencing any pressure from the authorities, as was so often the case in previous years."


Central Asian governments also manipulate complex registration processes to hinder the work of media organs.


"As concerns independent media, the main problem is getting a license," said NANSMIT's Qarshiboev. "For the last year and a half, no one except one company could get a license."

Media In Central Asia

Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005

MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)

Kazakhstan
Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.

Kyrgyzstan
Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.

Tajikistan
Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.

Turkmenistan
The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.

Uzbekistan
President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."

Of Related Interest:

Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Given 15-Day Sentence

Uzbekistan: New Media Resolution Tightens The Screws

Central Asia: Internet Fills Void Left By Media On Religious Freedom Issues

Central Asia: RFE/RL Speaks With Media Monitor About Press Freedom

THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.


For regular news and analysis on media issues throughout RFE/RL's broadcast area by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Media Matters."

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