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Central Asia: Kazakhs, Uzbeks Strengthen Media Grip Ahead Of Slated Elections

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

Voting in Almaty in the 2005 Kazakh presidential poll (RFE/RL) July 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two Central Asian republics are scheduled for elections in the coming months, with parliamentary elections set for mid-August in Kazakhstan and legislation calling for a presidential poll in Uzbekistan in December.


Few people expect either event to provide much surprise, with ruling elites likely to stay in power. But authorities in both places appear to have strengthened controls over media -- just in case.


Kazakh officials have frequently declared a commitment to principles of free speech. The most recent declaration came on July 26, when the country's culture and information minister, Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Permanent Council in Vienna that his country plans to liberalize media.


Yertysbaev said upcoming reforms included abolition of the registration process for electronic media, dropping a provision that obliges journalists to name their sources in court, and decriminalization of libel.


The OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media, Miklos Haraszti, welcomed the announced plan.


In a report issued this week, titled "Governing the Internet," the OSCE chided Kazakhstan for what it called excessive Internet restrictions that are reminiscent of Soviet-era "spy mania."


Kazakhstan has tried to improve its international image as it seeks the OSCE's rotating chairmanship in 2009. Many observers see Yertysbaev's speech to the OSCE in that light.


In the meantime, independent Kazakh journalists note that all of the reforms that Yertysbaev promised are scheduled to take place after the parliamentary elections set for August 18.


Media Crackdown?


Moreover, the signs from Astana indicate that officials are tightening their grip on local media ahead of the voting.


Kazakh law requires equal airtime and other media space for all parties running for parliament. But the opposition Social Democratic Party complained on July 24 that four television stations have denied it airtime to broadcast campaign videos.


Opposition clips have been posted on the Internet in an effort to find other avenues to voters. They include images crafted to highlight the gap between rich and poor in Kazakhstan, a message that senior Social Democratic Party member Amirzhan Qosanov says authorities want to stifle.


"In our videos, we wanted to show a sharp contrast between the fabulously rich and the very poor, who have only water and bread," Qosanov says. "[The authorities] understood that it would be an 'information bomb.'"


Qosanov tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that television stations justified rejection of their spots by saying the people shown in them had not given their permission to be filmed.


But Qosanov says the stations continued to reject the videos after the faces were blurred out so as to make the individuals unrecognizable. The party has filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission, and is awaiting a response with less than a month to go before the voting.


Qosanov claims his party is under an "information blockade."


Meanwhile, in neighboring Uzbekistan -- where presidential polls are scheduled for late December -- there has been no campaigning.


Local journalists say they have been instructed to avoid reports that portray Uzbekistan in a way that contradicts the sunny official line.


One journalist who works for a state-controlled television broadcaster in the capital, Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that "critical" reports have been forbidden.


"There was an indirect order to avoid sad news, reports that might possibly upset people, as well as critical reports, ahead of the elections," the television journalist said. "They said that only cheerful television and radio programs should be broadcast."


Today, there is virtually no independent media in Uzbekistan.


Post-Andijon


Following the May 2005 violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, authorities cracked down on an already muzzled independent media, forcing some reporters to flee the country.


RFE/RL was denied accreditation in December 2005, and its bureau in Tashkent was shut down. Nosir Zokirov, a former RFE/RL correspondent, continued to face official harassment after his release from jail last year.


The BBC was forced to close its office in Uzbekistan following harassment of its reporters.


This year, authorities have launched criminal cases against two journalists -- Natalya Bushuyeva and Yuri Chernogaev -- from German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.


Umida Niyazova is among the most recent targets of government persecution. A freelance journalist and human rights activist, Niyazova was sentenced to seven years in prison in May on charges that international organizations said were fabricated. The United States, the EU, the OSCE, and rights groups condemned the trial. Niyazova's sentence was subsequently reduced to a three-year suspended sentence.


The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says there are as many as five journalists imprisoned in Uzbekistan, including President Islam Karimov's nephew, Jamshid Karimov, who has been held in a psychiatric detention.


Encouraging Self-Censorship


The government crackdowns on dissent in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also appear to have had a chilling effect on reporters and editors.


Eric Freedman, an assistant professor of journalism at Michigan State University, tells RFE/RL that self-censorship is likely to remain a widespread practice among Central Asian journalists.


"There is no real alternative to it," Freedman says. "I think a journalist who realistically has to operate under particular economic and political environment needs to survive. If that means not doing particular stories or not looking for comments from the opposition in an area of controversy during elections, then that's what they do. We externally can say, 'You shouldn't do that, we need fairness and balance.'" But we also need to understand the instinct for survival."


Freedman speculates that the media situation in Central Asia is likely to remain bleak regardless of election results and reform pledges.


Among the region's post-Soviet republics, it is tempting to view the media environment ahead of the Kazakh and Uzbek elections as an old game, with old rules and predictable outcomes.

Islam And Politics In Central Asia
The Khodji Mashrab Mosque in Dushanbe (TASS file photo)

ACTIVISTS AND AUTOCRATS: Eric McGlinchey, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, told an RFE/RL briefing that Islam-centered political movements present the most coherent challenge to autocratic governments in Central Asia.


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