Independent newspapers in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are in danger of failing. The governments in both countries seek to avoid open conflict with independent media, relying instead on their judicial systems to silence critics. In this first of two features, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier examines a court case against an independent Kazakh newspaper and assesses the support the paper has inside and outside the country.
Prague, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia is not a comfortable place for critics of the government, especially those working in the media. The leaders of four of the five Central Asian CIS nations have been labeled "enemies of the press" by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Independent media still exist in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, a major reason why the two are seen by international press freedom and human rights organizations as "more free" than the other three -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. But in the past two weeks, there have been signs that tolerance of independent media in both countries may be coming to an end.
The publication of two newspapers in Kyrgyzstan has been suspended and another in Kazakhstan seems destined for the same fate, or worse. In all three cases, it is not the government that is officially responsible for the actions, but rather each country's judicial system.
The independent Kazakh newspaper "Soldat" is expecting a decision in its case later this week. Marilyn Greene, the executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee, explains the charges against "Soldat."
"In the case of 'Soldat' -- where the editor is being charged with insulting the honor and dignity of the president -- this law is in the criminal code of the country, and this type of law which we know as 'insult law' has been denounced by almost all international leaders, press freedom rapporteurs of the United Nations, the OSCE and Organization of American States, which jointly put out a resolution in November specifically calling for the repeal of these very outdated and anachronistic laws."
The charges against "Soldat" stem from the paper's attempt to reprint articles from the U.S. monthly "Fortune" and Italy's "Corrierre della Sera" daily. The articles dealt with charges of high-level corruption in Kazakhstan, in which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was alleged to have played a part.
Due to restrictions against printing the paper in Kazakhstan, "Soldat" is printed in Russia. Nine months ago, all copies of the paper containing the articles from the Western press were confiscated at the Kazakh border. But if the incriminating issue was not distributed in Kazakhstan, that did not prevent charges being brought against "Soldat."
Yermurat Bapi, the paper's editor-in-chief, told RFE/RL the decision to press charges against his newspaper confounds him.
"The entire accusation is based on a decision by an 'expert commission.' I don't understand what this commission is. It seems to be an integral part, or sub-department, of the Justice Ministry. This commission issued the verdict about us insulting the honor and dignity of the president."
Bapi's newspaper seems destined to be suspended, or even permanently shut down, when the court delivers its verdict later this week. Greene of the World Press Freedom Committee says this is unjust in a country that purports to be democratic.
"In the case of Kazakhstan, the president is under the impression he is immune from public scrutiny, whereas this is just the opposite of the way it's suppose to be in a country that professes to be a democratic system."
For many journalists in Central Asia the message is clear. The World Press Freedom Committee hosted a number of journalists from Kazakhstan recently to discuss reporting in the region. Marylin Greene describes what they told her:
"The government does not even need to openly threaten or charge a journalist because journalists know what will happen if they broadcast or print material that the government will object to. So they censor themselves."
Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Moscow non-governmental Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, says officials should be aware they are subject to more, not less, public scrutiny than ordinary citizens. But he adds that journalists, too, have responsibilities.
"We believe that neither the president nor prime minister nor members of the government are sacred cows who cannot be criticized. On the other hand, criticism should be objective and, of course, without an insulting tone."
Panfilov also says that since the majority of Central Asian media is state-owned or sympathetic to the government, officials have ample opportunity to respond to allegations against them.
Noting Kazakhtan's pretensions to press freedom, Greene offered some advice to its government:
"Kazakhstan was the host in 1992 of one of UNESCO's major global conferences on press freedom. And the declaration of Alma-Ata [Almaty] is very famous as one of the staunchest statements of press freedom. I would remind officials that the government endorsed this declaration at the UNESCO general conference [of member states that took place after the Alma-Ata meeting] and perhaps they should go back and read it. It sets out the principles of press freedom that the government itself has committed itself to."
The editor of "Soldat" suggests that such advice is not likely to be publicly voiced in Kazakhstan itself. He says that people are simply afraid to openly support the work of independent media for fear of government reprisals.
(The Kazakh and Russian Services contributed to this report)