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Central Asia/Iran: Report Finds No Respect For Fundamental Press Freedoms

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 12 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Following is an interview by RFE/RL's Tajik Service with a representative of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna on press freedom in Central Asia and Iran.

The Tajik service's Hashem Mohman asked IPI spokesman Peter Guff to detail the institute's conclusions from its annual report on press freedom regarding the countries of Central Asia and Iran.

The IPI prepares an annual World Press Freedom Review covering main press freedom violations and media developments around the world.

The institute is a Vienna-based global network of media chiefs from more than 100 countries which was founded in 1950. Its board members are senior editors and publishers from around the world.

Our correspondent asked Peter Guff to detail the findings of the annual report regarding the extent of press freedom in Central Asia. Guff replied:

"We think that the fundamental principles of freedom are not respected in Central Asia in any of the countries. I can take Tajikistan as a starting point: since the beginning of civil war in 1992, depending on whose count you take, up to 60 journalists have been murdered in Tajikistan. Of course, in the last couple of years that figure has reduced dramatically. But on June 8 a Mr. Davidov, who worked for the Tajik media for more than 50 years, was murdered by unknown individuals who burst into his home and beat him and strangled him with an iron wire. Davidov had been editor in chief of the Tajik Agrarian University newspaper, "Danish," since 1979 and author of several books and a member of the Central Asian Jewish section of the Writers' Union. Tajikistan is still a dangerous place to work as a journalist.

"Despite the constitution and the 1991 law which protects freedom of speech and the press, we think the government still severely restricts freedom of expression in practice. Journalists, broadcasters, and individual citizens who disagree with government practices cannot speak freely or critically. The government exercises control over media both overtly through legislation and less obviously through such mechanisms as discussing with reporters what should and should not be covered. The government also controls the printing presses, the supply of newsprint, and broadcasting facilities and subsidizes virtually all publications, giving them enormous clout over the independent press. Editors are very fearful of reprisals there and there is wide reporting of extensive self-censorship being in place in Tajikistan."

Our correspondent also asked Guff to give examples of the state of press freedoms in other Central Asian countries. Guff detailed the situation in Kazakhstan:

"In Kazakhstan recently we had the elections in January. President Nazarbayev continued there to consolidate his control over the media by strictly banning any criticism of the president and government officials. Journalists and private stations have been reportedly threatened by the government, private stations were told not to cover opposition candidates and there were to be no negative stories about the president, his policies, or his family. Once again self-censorship was rampant. Prior to the elections, back in 1996, the government announced it would hold a tender for broadcasting frequencies and the Association for Independent Electronic Mass Media there called the tender unfair, unlawful, and politically motivated.

"They said it was designed to sweep the stage clear of any broadcasters who supplied critical news coverage and allowed commentary from opponents of President Nazarbayev. The ultimate effect of the tender has been to leave only four nominally non-state television channels in Almaty. Previously there were eight or nine and they were critical and feisty channels. And the winners of the tender included President Nazarbayev's daughter (Dariga) who controls now at least three television networks, I think, and two radio networks, as well as other individuals who are linked to the president by marriage or through political loyalties. These ties meant in the run-up to the elections that critical coverage of the administration's policies was virtually non-existent. Independent broadcasters who re-broadcast the Voice of America have been silenced. Many stations with connections to the administration have not been forced to go through licensing processes.

"On the other hand, people who are not well connected have had to pay up to hundreds of thousands of US dollars before broadcasting. There are other problems in Kazakhstan that we would see such as the high cost of print production and distribution. There is a relatively low circulation of newspapers and magazines, this means the government tends to focus its attention on clamping down on broadcasting. In 1998, the prosecutor general also announced that the Kazakh government intends to crackdown on defamation of the president and on unsanctioned protests. He said that recently insults to the head of state had become more frequent and that some no longer distinguish criticism from direct humiliation of the president's honor and dignity. So he has decided to clamp down, and the direct result of that was on April 8 when the Communist leader Madel Ismailov was imprisoned for one year for calling President Nazarbayev's policies immoral and he referred to the president as a scoundrel, so he was sentenced to one year imprisonment for that."

Our correspondent asked Guff for the IPI's annual report's findings on Iran: Guff said:

"The year in Iran has sent us conflicting messages. President (Mohammad) Khatami has undoubtedly made steps to loosen the state's grip on the media. There has been lots of positive developments and the sweeping censorship and decisions which were made previously have not been as excessive this year and he has made many statements in favor of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, which we welcome. There do seem to be liberalization tendencies among the media, now they are tending to be more critical and to report on issues that were previously considered taboo. Having said that, there is still an ideological struggle going on within Iran and this was epitomized by the vote in parliament when, I think, 180 out of the 270 Iranian parliamentarians voted that any journalist who questioned Islamic principles should be brought to trial for threatening state security -- national security -- with long prison sentences as a suggested sanction. This shows again that there is a very right-wing, conservative attitude still prevalent in the hierarchy in Iran. Also, toward the end of the year, there have been three murders of journalists and writers who were calling for a more liberal interpretation of Islam, and two of them were trying to set up an organization and had signed a document saying that Iran should be a more liberal society, and these three were murdered -- as it was reported afterward -- by rogue elements within the secret police."