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'Reporting Among Gangsters' - Op-Ed in 'The Washington Post'

The Washington Post

By Jeffrey Gedmin

PRAGUE -- Last fall, Alisher Saipov, a human rights reporter for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was denounced by Uzbekistan's state-controlled media. Not long afterward, the 26-year-old journalist was fatally shot in front of his office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Human rights groups believe that Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek who was born in Kyrgyzstan and lived there, was killed by the ruthless security services of neighboring Uzbekistan.

Last month, the Uzbek media were again stirring up trouble. State television smeared the entire Uzbek service of RFE/RL, denouncing its journalists as criminals and airing broadcasters' photographs as well as private information about their family members, including home addresses. The television service has rebroadcast this program at least three times in recent days. Saipov had received death threats, and the first death threat against a colleague at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague came last month. It's an ominous pattern.

Also last month, Solijon Abdurahmanov, one of the few independent journalists working inside Uzbekistan, was arrested after police officers claimed to have found narcotics in his possession. This seems to be a favorite trick. Previously, the cousin of an RFE/RL Uzbek journalist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug possession -- shortly after authorities became aware of his intention to defect.

Such is the gangster-like world of Central Asia today. This deplorable human rights situation poses a familiar quandary for policymakers. The next U.S. president will struggle daily to balance our security interests with our commitment to democracy and human rights. And the stakes in Central Asia are high.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, countries rich in oil and gas, both have repressive regimes. Both are also courted by Russia and China. Uzbekistan, which the organization Freedom House ranks as on par with North Korea in terms of political rights and civil liberties, has military bases that U.S. and NATO forces use to stage operations in Afghanistan. In May 2005, Uzbek security forces opened fire on an anti-government rally in the eastern city of Andijon, killing as many as 1,000 demonstrators; when the Bush administration criticized the regime's response, Uzbek authorities ejected U.S. forces from the country. The government also closed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's bureau in the capital, Tashkent, after RFE/RL journalists sought to investigate the massacre.

RFE/RL relations with the Uzbek government have remained frosty since then. Officials see our independent reporting on health and social issues, culture, human rights, and politics as a threat.

Since Andijon, the United States and the European Union have worked to rebuild their relations with Tashkent. The Uzbek government is not making détente easy. Last year, a senior E.U. official described the human rights situation in Uzbekistan as "miserable." The European Union sought to co-host a media conference in Tashkent in June, but as the government's manipulations of the event became clear, the Europeans felt obliged to withdraw. A senior State Department official traveled to Uzbekistan recently and praised improvements in human rights conditions. There was, indeed, a token release of a few political prisoners. But the vicious attacks on RFE/RL journalists by Uzbek state television immediately followed these releases. Just yesterday, the government began distributing nationwide a video further denouncing RFE/RL journalists.

A Freedom House report last month confirmed the miserable status of human rights in Uzbekistan. The situation of independent media, the report found, is "absolutely dire." Obviously, it's not easy to balance the values that Western governments espouse and their day-to-day security and economic interests. The "stans" of Central Asia, a group of largely poor countries, also have an image problem: Their names sound remote to Western ears, and their issues will never spark the interest or controversy of Iran or Tibet. Without the celebrity of a Dalai Lama, Westerners are simply unlikely to pay attention.

Yet we must.

Last week, a teacher who has frequently appeared on RFE/RL programs in Turkmenistan was arrested, taken to a psychiatric clinic and threatened. When he refused to sign a statement vowing to sever contact with RFE/RL, he was incarcerated. One RFE/RL Kazakh colleague has lost two brothers who are widely believed to have been killed by the Kazakh equivalent of the KGB. Uzbek colleagues in our Prague headquarters worry about their relatives back home. "They won't shoot my mother today," one has said. "They'll have her killed in a car accident six months from now, when nobody's looking." That should mean one thing: We have to continue looking -- and they have to know it.

The writer is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The congressionally funded broadcaster provides independent news and information to 21 countries from Russia to Central Asia to the Middle East.