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Central Asia Report: April 19, 2004


19 April 2004, Volume 4, Number 16

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. If no news is good news, it was a fine week in Uzbekistan. Quiet reined a little more than two weeks after gunshots and explosions rang out in Tashkent. Meanwhile, President Islam Karimov visited Moscow on 15 April to exchange views with his Russian counterpart on the fight against terrorism. Karimov stressed that terrorists are regrouping faster than the international antiterrorism coalition can react. Russian President Vladimir Putin assured Karimov that "in your struggle against these acts, you can count on Russia's full and unconditional support."

Kazakhstan continued to debate the participation of its 27 peacekeepers in the rebuilding of Iraq, with President Nursultan Nazarbaev stressing that they will remain until their contract expires at the end of May. Parliamentarians, however, expressed a desire to query the ministers of foreign affairs and defense on the mission. Meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell sent messages thanking Kazakhstan for its contribution to the coalition. Rounding out the week's events, President Nazarbaev signed a controversial election bill into law, and the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) announced that it has 83,000 members and hopes to register itself with the Justice Ministry. (Political parties in Kazakhstan must have no fewer than 50,000 members in order to obtain official registration.)

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev administered a tongue-lashing to top law-enforcement officials for failing to stem a rising tide of violent crime. A day later, he moved from words to deeds, sacking two deputy interior ministers. A Justice Ministry spokesman denied rumors of an impending parole for Feliks Kulov, the imprisoned leader of the opposition Ar-Namys Party, calling recent statements to this effect by an Ar-Namys spokesman a "pure falsification." And on 16 April heads of government from the CIS states met in Cholpon-Ata for a session of the council of CIS prime ministers.

The UN Commission on Human Rights approved a stinging resolution that urged Turkmenistan to improve its human rights record, and its treatment of ethnic minorities in particular. Four Tajik citizens who had been held at Guantanamo Bay since their detention in Afghanistan in late 2001 returned home. And finally, Tajik security forces arrested a former imam who allegedly headed a recently discovered extremist religious group -- Bay'at -- that authorities suspect of having committed numerous murders in northern Tajikistan. Twelve members of the group are under arrest amid an ongoing investigation.

TAJIKISTAN: MEDIA SITUATION IN 2003. Tajikistan's media environment suffers from an unfortunate confluence of subjective and objective constraints. Subjectively, the state has a wide array of instruments -- from ambiguously worded libel legislation to licensing regulations to a near-monopoly on printing presses -- to ensure that officially endorsed points of view predominate. Objectively, rugged terrain hampers nationwide distribution of all forms of media, the country's infrastructure has yet to recover from the devastating effects of the 1992-97 civil war, and the population's impoverishment has rendered even the regular purchase of newspapers too expensive for all but a few.

Tajikistan shared 113th place with Azerbaijan on Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' October 2003 press-freedom ranking of 166 countries. Within Central Asia, Tajikistan fared significantly better than Turkmenistan (158th place) and Uzbekistan (154th place), and fell roughly in between Kazakhstan (138th place) and Kyrgyzstan (104th place). Globally, the particular combination of subjective and objective obstacles that characterizes Tajikistan's media environment is most closely replicated in other countries with a traumatic recent past, tenuous economy, and meddlesome officials such as Rwanda and Lebanon.

As in other spheres of Tajik life, the civil war continues to cast a shadow over the media. The "2002 Media Sustainability Index" by IREX noted: "During the period before the civil war, the media became an instrument of the competing parties. In the opinion of most journalists in Tajikistan, media were at least partially responsible for the antagonism that was perpetuated before the war." It is in this light that parallels emerge with seemingly disparate countries like Rwanda, where a radio station incited genocide, and Lebanon, where each faction in the brutal civil war maintained its own newspaper as a mouthpiece. In Tajikistan, nearly 80 journalists perished during the turbulent 1990s. Today, this makes for a mixed legacy -- journalists are profoundly aware of the dangers of incitement to conflict, but they are also vulnerable to charges from critics, who may not always speak with the best of intentions, that critical or controversial articles are evidence of a return to the irresponsible demagoguery that fueled the civil war.

Print Media

Though Tajikistan boasts an impressive number of newspapers, they labor under the same constraints that afflict other media -- official interference and scant resources. While censorship is officially illegal, independent journalists often have difficulty obtaining accurate information from officials, and journalists who incur official displeasure face harassment. Moreover, the state-owned Sharqi Ozod printing press maintains a virtual monopoly, allowing the state to exercise effective censorship by preventing the appearance in print of materials not to its liking. At various points during 2003, for example, Sharqi Ozod refused to print the independent newspapers "Nerui Sukhan" and "Ruzi Nav" when they carried materials critical of the government and president.

Penury creates a host of other problems. Low salaries offer little incentive to join the profession, and impoverished journalists are especially susceptible to payments offered in exchange for articles written to order. Needless to say, such articles further diminish the status of the profession in the public's eye. For their part, few members of the reading public have the means to buy newspapers on a daily basis. As a result, newspapers tend to come out once a week, with only a few papers appearing more frequently. Even state-owned "Jumhuriyat" is published only three times a week. A lack of tax breaks for media exacerbates the already tight financial situation of many newspapers. Independent media often rely on foreign grants for financial support.

Government-owned newspapers include "Jumhuriyat" (in Tajik), "Sadoi Mardum" (in Tajik), "Khalq Ovozi" (in Uzbek), and "Narodnaya gazeta" (in Russian). "Asia-Plus," "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," "Varorud," and "Vechernii Dushanbe" are well-known independent newspapers. Only "Asia-Plus" maintains a webpage, which features materials in Russian and English from the affiliated Asia-Plus news agency (http://www.asiaplus.tajik.net/). Two former journalists, Akbaraly Sattor and Sharif Hamdamov, have become independent media magnates with offerings that tend toward the tabloid end of the spectrum. The major political parties also publish newspapers, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party's "Najot" and the Communist Party's "Nidoi Ranjbar."

Dodojon Atoulloev's "Charoghi Ruz" is an opposition newspaper published in Russia. According to its website (http://www.charogiruz.ru), it bills itself as a "newspaper in exile." It appears very infrequently; only two issues came out in 2003. The last issue, which appeared in early 2004, contained numerous reprints from the Russian press and a few materials in Tajik. Most of the articles in "Charoghi Ruz" express bitter opposition to current Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov.

Television

State-run Tajik TV is the only national station. Its reception extends to 70 percent-80 percent of the country. A throwback to the Soviet period, it alternates officious news broadcasts with folkloric programming and entertainment rebroadcasts from other networks. In January 2004, President Rakhmonov appointed a new head of the State TV and Radio Committee, and plans for a second national state television station appear to be in the offing.

A number of local stations, some of them privately owned, exist in Dushanbe and Khujand. Somonion TV in Dushanbe is Iranian-funded. Most of the northern Viloyati Sughd, home to many Uzbek speakers, can receive state television from neighboring Uzbekistan. Most local stations have little money for original programming and broadcast for only a few hours a day. At least one company in Dushanbe, TV-Servis, offers a cable package with 12 channels, but at a price that few can afford. Satellite systems, while available, are even more prohibitively priced.

Radio

State-run Radio 1 and 2 broadcast nationwide, although radio ownership is not widespread in many areas and electrical power is often intermittent in isolated regions. Independent FM stations include Asia-Plus in Dushanbe and Radio Tiroz in Khujand.

Internet

Although the Internet could conceivably provide a low-cost alternative to traditional media, its initial development faces formidable infrastructure inadequacies, geographic barriers, and capital shortfalls. According to at least one source, Tajikistan has the lowest per-capita telephone service of any former Soviet state. The country's mountainous terrain hampers the reconstruction and expansion of the communications infrastructure. Still, at least four Internet service providers currently exist in Dushanbe: Babilon-T (http://www.tojikiston.com), Telecomm Technology (http://www.tajnet.com), state-run Tojiktelekom (http://www.netrt.org), and Intercom (http://www.tjinter.com). Although some news agencies maintain consistently updated webpages, few Tajik media are available on the Internet.

Conclusion

To a greater extent than in more developed countries, the overall economic situation will continue to determine the extent to which the media environment can improve. While independent media show some signs of strengthening, their potential is circumscribed by infrastructure weaknesses and limited consumer purchasing power. Political considerations are an equally important factor, and the politicization of media will likely increase in the lead-up to 2005 parliamentary elections, with attendant efforts to exert control and influence. If President Rakhmonov, who could theoretically remain president until 2020, succeeds in further consolidating his power, he may try to move Tajikistan closer to the Uzbek model of a tightly controlled press that serves the interests of the ruling elite and almost entirely neglects the media's putative goal of providing accurate information and analysis. This is not a foregone conclusion, however, and incremental improvements in the media environment remain possible at present.

Web Resources

http://www.internews.tj -- Media development NGO (English and Russian).

http://khovar.tojikiston.com -- Official news agency (Russian).

http://www.varorud.org -- Independent new agency based in Khujand (Russian, infrequently updated in English).

http://www.asiaplus.tajik.net -- Independent news agency and newspaper (English and Russian).

http://www.charogiruz.ru/start.shtml -- Opposition "newspaper in exile" based in Russia (Russian and Tajik, infrequent issues).

http://www.tajikistantimes.ru -- Internet newspaper. Does not appear to have been updated since 2003.

http://www.eurasianet.org/resource/tajikistan/hypermail/news/index.shtml -- Links to recent Tajikistan-related stories (English).

http://www.tiroz.sugdien.com -- Viloyati Sughd-based independent radio station.

http://tajikistan.tajnet.com -- Information portal with official reports (Russian).

http://www.centrasia.ru -- Clearing house for press materials and dialogue about Central Asia (in Russian). Includes materials on Tajikistan.

Reports

BBC Monitoring Research, Tajik Media, 10 February 2004.

U.S. Department of State, "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003: Tajikistan," 25 February 2004, at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27868.htm

Reporters Without Borders, "Tajikistan - Annual Report 2003," 5 February 2003, at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=6540

International Research & Exchanges Board, "Media Sustainability Index 2002," at http://www.irex.org/msi

Committee to Protect Journalists, "Attacks on the Press 2003, Tajikistan," at http://www.cpj.org/attacks03/europe03/tajik.html

TURKMENISTAN: MEDIA SITUATION IN 2003. Turkmenistan began and ended 2003 as a country with one of the world's most hostile media environments. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan 158th out of 166 countries surveyed in its second world press-freedom ranking, made public on 20 October 2003. The report described Turkmenistan and other "bottom 10" countries as places where "independent news media are either non-existent...or are constantly repressed by the authorities. Journalists there work in extremely difficult conditions, with no freedom and no security."

Within the regional context of Central Asia, Turkmenistan's media enjoy the least degree of freedom. Even Uzbekistan's tightly controlled press is freer, to say nothing of the comparatively vibrant debates found in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Closer parallels with Turkmenistan are evident in other countries relegated by Reporters Without Borders to the bottom of the press freedom ranking such as North Korea, Burma, Laos, and China.

The media situation in Turkmenistan is both a reflection of the country's political system and one of its props. In a 1 January 2004 article in "World Affairs" (Vol. 166), Stephen Blank wrote, "Turkmenistan has deteriorated to a tragic and yet farcical restaging of Stalinism's worst excesses, representing almost a paradigm, if not a caricature, of Weber's category of sultanism." In this environment, with its enforced worship of "Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great" and total absence of democratic institutions, the media are called upon both to form the population's views, by reinforcing the leader's cult of personality, and to deform them, by blocking out any information or opinions that could contradict official ideology. What the media are not allowed to do under any circumstances is to provide objective, accurate information and a plurality of ideas.

Print Media

According to the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report on Turkmenistan, 22 newspapers are published in Turkmen and one in Russian. The two leading national newspapers are "Turkemistan" (in Turkmen) and "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" (in Russian). President Niyazov himself appoints editors, who are subject to a six-month probationary period. Newspapers carry a loyalty oath to the president on their masthead and devote the bulk of their coverage to his exploits. The president's press office, the state news agency, and other state institutions are the primary source for news. Foreign newspapers are virtually unobtainable.

Like virtually all print media, newspapers are owned by the state and printed by state-owned presses. Censorship operates through a three-level system: a committee to protect state secrets, editors, and the self-censorship of journalists who know that one misstep can cost them their career, and perhaps their freedom.

Television

Turkmenistan's three television channels -- Altyn Asyr (Golden Age), Miras (Heritage), and Yashlyk (Youth) -- all sport a silhouette of the literally omnipresent president in the corner of the screen. Coverage focuses heavily on Niyazov, including lengthy speeches and cabinet meetings. Other programming consists of patriotic music and inoffensive rebroadcasts from Russia's state-run ORT. All programming is in Turkmen except a 10-minute daily newscast in Russian. Personnel policy and censorship replicate the situation in the print media. Satellite and cable systems were outlawed in April 2003, leaving official Turkmen channels the only source of television entertainment and news. Though we have no information on numbers of viewers or ratings, President Niyazov's occasional grumbling that officials should produce livelier fare may indicate that he is aware of some dissatisfaction with current programming.

According to official reports, Turkmenistan is in the process of creating a fourth television channel to broadcast in several foreign languages. Several contracts have apparently been awarded to foreign firms to provide technical support; it remains unclear when and if the channel will actually begin broadcasting.

The "confession" of Boris Shikhmuradov, broadcast in January 2003, provided a vivid illustration of Turkmen television's political functions. Appearing drugged and disoriented, the former Turkmen prime minister confessed on videotape to masterminding a plot to kill Niyazov in December 2002. Turkmen television aired footage of a packed congress hall watching Shikhmuradov's confession on a large screen while voices from the hall rang out calling for his death. Freimut Duve, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media, denounced the broadcasts in a 16 January 2003 statement, saying: "These are the same methods that were used during the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. The rhetoric used is often obscene and in most countries would be unprintable."

Radio

Official radio broadcasts feature a heavy diet of songs about President Niyazov. Two foreign radio stations broadcast in Turkmen -- Iran's Radio Gorgan and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Russia's state-run Mayak station (in Russian) can also be received.

Internet

Turkmentelecom, the country's only Internet service provider, stopped serving private customers in April 2003, according to reports in Russia's "Izvestiya" and the Turkmen opposition site dogryyol.com. Nevertheless, a number of Internet resources exist in Turkmen. Some of them are listed below (see "Resources").

RFE/RL

RFE/RL correspondents attempting to work in Turkmenistan have endured extreme harassment. RFE/RL correspondent Saparmurat Ovezberdiyev was abducted by agents of the National Security Ministry and threatened in September and November 2003. In 2004, correspondents Rakhim Esenov and Ashyrguly Bayryev were arrested; they were later released after an international outcry.

Conclusion

Turkmenistan appears destined to continue its progress toward the bottom of all international rankings of press freedom. Nothing would appear to indicate that any loosening of control over the media is in the offing.

Web Resources

http://www.altynasyr.8m.com/index.htm and http://www.altasnet.tk -- News in Turkmen.

http://www.dogryyol.com -- Turkmen opposition site (Russian and English). Original materials and links to Turkmenistan-related news.

http://www.zaman-tm.com -- Turkmen edition of Turkey's "Zaman" (Turkmen).

http://www.eurasianet.org/resource/turkmenistan/hypermail/news/index.shtml -- Links to Turkmenistan-related news.

http://www.erkin.net -- Turkmen opposition site (Russian, English, Turkmen). Run by Avdy Kuliev. Primarily original materials.

http://www.gundogar.org -- Turkmen opposition site (Russian and English). Many links to Turkmenistan-related news, including articles from Turkmen press.

http://www.turkmenistan.ru -- Official Turkmen news site (in Russian). Emphasis on business news.

http://www.watan.ru -- Turkmen opposition site (Russian, English, Turkmen). Links to Turkmenistan-related news.

http://www.watanym.biz -- Official Turkmen portal (Turkmen). Includes articles from Turkmen press.

http://www.centrasia.ru -- Clearing house for press materials and dialogue about Central Asia (in Russian). Includes materials on Turkmenistan.

Reports

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, "Freedom of the Media" in "Turkmenistan: The Making of a Failed State," April 2004, at http://www.ihf-hr.org/documents/doc_summary.php?sec_id=3&d_id=3831

U.S. Department of State, "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003: Turkmenistan," 25 February 2004, at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27870.htm

Reporters Without Borders, "Turkmenistan - Annual Report 2003," 5 February 2003, at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=6542

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