2 May 2005, Volume
BREAKING CENTRAL ASIA'S INFORMATION STRANGLEHOLD
By Christopher Walker
The news media are under severe duress in virtually all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the former Soviet republics of Central Asia this condition is particularly acute.
The troubled state of Central Asia's news media is put into perspective by data from Freedom House's annual survey of press freedom. All of these countries fall into the category of "not free." Most disturbing, however, is the countries' trajectory. All of these lands, save Tajikistan whose ratings have improved since the end of that country's violent civil war, now enjoy less press freedom than they did a decade ago.
The tools of media manipulation and control range from the subtle to the brutal. Already marginalized independent media confront a range of obstacles, from unusually vigilant tax inspectors to physical violence, including the killing of journalists.
This systematic abuse results in a massive information gap that warps the development of these societies and deprives its citizens of the free flow of information that can bring about democratic progress.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the state television broadcast facility was of particular interest to protesters in Kyrgyzstan, who in March jettisoned the regime of then President Askar Akaev. The protesters' taking of the airwaves released the information spigot that had been all but closed to the opposition during campaign leading up to the recent flawed parliamentary elections.
The authorities in Tajikistan, which also held parliamentary elections in February, undertook their own campaign to rein in media. Citing alleged tax violations, the authorities shut down several newspapers, including "Adolat," "Odamu Olam," and "Ruzi No." Peter Eicher, chief of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said of the Tajik authorities' treatment of the news media that "it seems to represent a pattern of government interference with independent media and this has an effect which undermines democratic elections."
On the heels of recent events in the neighborhood, Uzbek authorities have reportedly initiated criminal proceedings against Internews, a media assistance organization, signaling another effort to limit independent media development in that highly closed country.
Turkmenistan, among the most repressive states in the world, is sui generis. The government controls all media, which is used principally as an instrument to promote the personality cult of the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The authorities in these countries seek to manage the news and deny information to their citizens with good reason. Without exception, the news on these regimes' governance performance is not good. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authorities in all five former Soviet Central Asian republics have been mired in corruption and unable to deliver essential political goods to their people.
Shining a light on these problems would of course have a salutary impact. A free flow of news and information could precipitate a demand for greater responsiveness to societal needs. Such responsiveness is, however, something Central Asian leadership has shown little capacity or willingness to entertain. As events in Georgia, Ukraine and, now, Kyrgyzstan tell us, average citizens already have come to expect better governance from their leaders, despite the best efforts of these very same leaders to keep them in the dark.
The main features of media control include deep involvement of presidential family and close associates in ownership and management positions at broadcast and print news organizations.
In Kyrgyzstan, independent broadcasters have been virtually all owned or under the control of forces close to President Akaev, including his son-in-law and other family members. The print media has been a similar story, frequently practicing self-censorship in its political coverage.
Kazakhstan boasts a more modern media landscape, but print and broadcast outlets of import are owned or controlled by financial interests and parties affiliated with the regime. President Nursultan Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, controls major television channels. She also exerts significant influence over several major newspapers.
To meet the range of serious challenges that loom -- corruption, economic development, and security among them -- Central Asia needs its own information revolution, which would be a key catalyst for moving forward the democratic reform process. Events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan suggest that the democratic impulse has real traction. Despite the best efforts to control information, word of mouth and new technology is inexorably conspiring to spread the word about democratic developments, even to the most remote corners of the former Soviet space.
Unlike in the Middle East, the citizens of Central Asia do not enjoy access to the dynamic and catalytic media outlets the likes of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah that are beamed via satellite into households throughout the politically repressive Mideast region.
This suggests that Central Asia's media reform will need to take root from within.
Toward this end, on 1 April Kyrgyzstan's media and NGO community made a public appeal for the creation of a working group that would draft legislation to establish independent public television and radio. The transformation of the country's state-controlled National TV and Radio Corporation into a genuinely independent, public station would set a valuable precedent in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, expectations are very high, perhaps unreasonably so, for achieving swift and comprehensive reforms. Kyrgyz citizens and the outside world alike should hold no illusions about the magnitude of this challenge. The recent turn of events in Kyrgyzstan, as regards the media sector, could represent an important first step and sorely needed breath of fresh air on what is now a grim information landscape.
Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.
JOURNALISTS DEFEND JAILED COLLEAGUE
By Daniel Kimmage
Friction between journalists and Uzbekistan's authorities is nothing new. But the recent arrest of Sobirjon Yoqubov (spelled "Yakubov" in many reports), a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat," has sparked a reaction that goes beyond expressions of concern from international organizations. This time, some of the jailed journalist's colleagues in Uzbekistan have mobilized in his support.
News of Yoqubov's arrest in mid-April came against the backdrop of an event that had already unnerved journalists in Uzbekistan. After an article signed by a certain Safar Abdullaev appeared on the Internet with sensational details of a coming crackdown against independent journalists in Uzbekistan, a number of the individuals named by Abdullaev sent an open letter to the Interior Ministry requesting confirmation or denial of the report. Deputy Interior Minister Alisher Sharafuddinov held an unusual public meeting with the journalists in question on 15 April, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. While Sharafuddinov insisted that no crackdown was in the offing, he confirmed the arrest of a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat."
According to a transcript of the meeting published by tribune.uz, Sharafuddinov said in response to a question from an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent, "[Sobirjon Yoqubov] was arrested on 11 April, and on 14 April he was charged under Article 159." Article 159 of Uzbekistan's criminal code involves attempts to "overthrow the constitutional order." It is a staple of reports on the government's controversial fight against religious extremism, which critics have described as a campaign of repression that inflames, rather than contains, radicalism. The most common suspects in cases involving article 159 are alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout Central Asia even as it officially eschews violence.
International watchdog organizations reacted quickly to Yoqubov's arrest. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued press releases expressing concern for the journalist's safety. Noting that the charges against Yoqubov could carry a 20-year prison sentence, the two organizations quoted sources in Uzbekistan as saying that the authorities might be using an accusation of religious extremism to punish the journalist for addressing a hot-button political issue.
In an 18 April press release, the Committee to Protect Journalists quoted a March article Yoqubov wrote about the murder of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Yoqubov argued that Gongadze's slaying "became a driving force [for Ukrainians] to realize the necessity of democratic reforms and freedom."
Pascale Bonnamour, head of the Europe desk for Reports Without Borders, told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on 20 April that Yakubov's arrest should be viewed in the context of recent events in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. "The fact that Yakubov is in prison serves as a warning to other journalists to monitor what they say," she said.
The U.S. State Department also expressed concern. "Our embassy is in contact with the Uzbek authorities and has urged observance of due process and fair and humane treatment for Mr. Yakubov," spokesman Adam Ereli said at a 19 April briefing published on the State Department website (http://www.state.gov). As noted in our 2004 Human Rights Report, in the past journalists have been harassed by the Uzbek government in an apparent effort to limit publication of critical stories. We will be following this case closely."
Uzbek journalists spoke out as well. In an appeal on uznews.net, a number of Uzbek journalists condemned the silence of their colleagues and urged them to show support for Yoqubov through an Internet petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/291000507). "In Uzbekistan, where the rights and freedoms of journalists are crudely violated, each of us can become a victim of injustice," the appeal's authors noted. The signatories included two of Yoqubov's colleagues from the newspaper "Hurriyat," Bahriddin Mingboev and Zebo Abduqodirova.
"Colleagues and relatives who knew Sobirjon, as well as ordinary Uzbek citizens who read his publications, are convinced that the charge against him is unfounded and that a serious mistake has been made," the appeal stated. Two of them, both signatories to the appeal, shared their views. Yoqutkhon Mamatova, a lecturer on the journalism faculty at Tashkent University, said: "Sobirjon was one of our most talented students. And he understood state policy. Proof of this is that he had a number of publications in the local press on international terrorism. His arrest may have been the result of someone's mistake." Asilkhon Iskandarov, a classmate of Yoqubov and a student on the journalist faculty at Tashkent University, said, "He's completely innocent. Sobirjon and I have been friends since school, and I know him very well."
The Uzbek government has yet to make clear the substance of its charges against Sobirjon Yoqubov. But as the initial reaction to the journalist's arrest shows, it has already ensured that the case will receive careful scrutiny, both abroad and at a home.
LEGISLATURE TOUGH ON REFORMIST PRESS, LENIENT ON STATE MEDIA
By Bill Samii
Two recent incidents indicate the politicized nature of Iranian media affairs and reveal the impact of conservative domination of the legislature and the resulting absence of oversight. In the first case a reporter has lost her access to the parliamentary beat, and in the second case state television is serving as a platform for a conservative presidential candidate's campaign speeches. Conservative control of the executive branch, which is a possibility after the June presidential election, could make things worse.
In the most recent media-related incident, parliamentarians voted to block a correspondent's access to the legislature. Masih Ali-Nejad, who works for the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) and pro-reform "Hambastegi" newspaper, reported on the pay slip of a parliamentarian that showed his salary, a new-year payment, and a $1,250 bonus. Subsequently, according to ILNA on 4 April, some parliamentarians and the conservative press accused Ali-Nejad of stealing the pay-slip from the legislator's pigeonhole, and guards prevented Ali-Nejad from entering the parliament building. Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the reformist parliamentary representative from Ardakan, however, said one of his reformist colleagues gave the pay slip to Ali-Nejad.
Reformist members of parliament invited Ali-Nejad to enter the building, ILNA reported on 6 April, but the guards blocked the way again.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman of the Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, said that expelling a reporter prevents her from doing her job, ILNA reported on 5 April. Shamsolvaezin expressed concern that the legislature is joining in the judiciary's restricting correspondents.
Approximately 350 news people signed a petition against the ban on Ali-Nejad, ILNA reported on 15 April. The petition noted that journalists already face financial and professional pressures, and now they are encountering problems stemming from political disputes. This is harmful to journalists, but it also undermines the free flow of information, which is indispensable for official accountability.
Most observers would agree that when an official's salary is paid from the public coffer, then the public has a right to know how much that person is paid. This is especially true when that official is an elected representative of the people. The legislature's desire to be unaccountable is a bad sign, as this is the same institution that is supposed to examine the financial activities of other state entities. If members of parliament refuse to be forthright on their own salaries, then they will have little credibility when investigating other state institutions. Likewise, their calls on the public to endure hardship will seem far-fetched if they are embarrassed to show how much they are earning.
The other recent media dispute relates to the presidential campaign and broadcast media.
Exploitation 'Until The Elections'
A number of prospective candidates refused to appear on a state television program called "Until the Elections" in late March. One exception was Tehran parliamentary representative and prospective conservative candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, who appeared on the show and criticized the executive branch and state officials. He also inaccurately attributed remarks to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami.
Khorasan parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Mohammad Shariati-Dehqan, who serves on the committee that oversees state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, aka Voice and Vision of Iran), reacted to this incident on 2 April, ISNA reported. Shariati-Dehqan criticized IRIB officials for not heeding regulations relating to the election, and he specifically referred to an absence of "fairness and justice in news bulletins."
Shariati-Dehqan also noted that parliamentary supervision and oversight of IRIB has fallen drastically since the conservatives assumed control of the legislature. State broadcasting officials are exploiting this situation, he said, and they have ignored letters and warnings from the committee.
The oversight committee met on 10 April to review "Until the Elections." The head of the committee, Khorasan parliamentarian Gholam Hussein Mozaffari, said afterward that having prospective candidates appear on the show is causing problems, ISNA reported on 11 April. The committee decided, therefore, to invite the candidates to speak in their roles as political experts and activists.
The Interior Ministry also criticized IRIB for its lack of impartiality. A letter from the ministry said, "The programs being aired by IRIB are clear examples of publicity for specific candidates," IRNA reported on 11 April. The letter added that "Until the Elections" essentially provided publicity for some candidates, and it cited the appearances of Ali Larijani, Mohsen Rezai, and Ahmad Tavakoli. The Interior Ministry noted that the Election Law requires that all candidates should have equal access to campaign facilities.
The Guardians Council supervises election and would be expected to express a view on this issue. However, Mohammad Jahromi, the Guardians Council's deputy director of elections, was noncommittal. He said the law is "silent" when it comes to early campaigning by prospective presidential candidates, "Mardom Salari" reported on 5 April. This kind of early campaigning is acceptable as long the individuals are not referred to as candidates, Jahromi said. He added the Guardians Council will not investigate the issue unless it receives an official request from the legislature.
Voice And Vision
Accusations of a hard-line bias on the part of the Voice and Vision are not infrequent occurrences and are heard before and after most elections, as well as major political crises. So the most recent complaints are not a surprise. The legislature's oversight of state broadcasting is supposed to keep such incidents in check. However many members of parliament have a background in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as does IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami. These personal ties and their similarly conservative ideological tendencies indicate that they will do little to control the Voice and Vision.
The combination of these media-related events suggests that although the public is entitled to information about the parliament, as well as impartial parliamentary oversight of state institutions, it is unlikely to get them. And this situation will only get worse if conservatives gain control of the executive branch.
AUTHORITIES SHUT DOWN AL-JAZEERA BUREAU AFTER COVERAGE OF ETHNIC CLASHES
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Iran temporarily closed the Tehran bureau of the Al-Jazeera television network on 18 April, suspending all of the station's activities in Iran. Authorities are accusing Al-Jazeera of stirring up ethnic violence following its coverage of the 15 April clashes between ethnic Arabs and security forces in southwestern Iran.
Tehran says it is launching an investigation into Al-Jazeera's coverage of the clashes, which took place in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province.
The head of the Culture Ministry's foreign media office, Mohammad Hussein Khoshvaght, told the state news agency IRNA that Al-Jazeera will remain suspended until it is clear what role the network may have played in "manipulating public sentiment" and "creating chaotic conditions" in Ahvaz.
The suspension follows complaints about Al-Jazeera by Iranian lawmakers. Parliament deputies accuse the channel of portraying the 15 April violence in Khuzestan as separatist unrest instigated by Iran's Arab minority. In Iran, where Arabs make up just 3 percent of the population, rumors of ethnic strife can spark deep misgivings among the Persian majority.
Iranian lawmakers claim Al-Jazeera deliberately sought to stir ethnic hostilities by suggesting a separatist uprising, and have called for all network employees to be expelled from the country.
Al-Jazeera defends its coverage of the unrest. Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for the Arabic-language channel, said Tehran's decision is unexpected and regrettable. "I don't think Al-Jazeera would in any way, or could in any way, be deemed to be involved in any domestic developments [in Iran]," Ballout said. "At the end of the day, we are a news organization, like any other news organization, that tries to cover issues on the ground as they are. We will continue to do our best to cover the Iranian scene in a comprehensive, balanced and objective way. We've been through this before with other states and I think common sense and wisdom eventually prevailed. And we are hoping that the relevant authorities in Iran would look at media in the correct light and perhaps reconsider their decision very soon."
Iranian officials say the unrest was sparked by a letter purporting to detail a plan for bringing masses of non-Arabs into Ahvaz, a main population center of Iran's Arab minority. The letter has been attributed to Iran's former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi. But Iranian authorities say the letter is a forgery; Abtahi himself has denied writing the letter.
Writing on his personal website, Abtahi said even if confirmed by Iran's supreme leader or the Supreme National Security Council, a decision to shift the ethnic composition of a region cannot be implemented in Iran.
The letter calling for the ethnic resettlement had appeared on the website of the irredentist Democratic Popular Movement of Ahvazi Arabs.
The letter spurred several hundred ethnic Arab Ahvaz residents to gather on 15 April to protest the plan. The demonstration turned violent, with protesters setting fire to banks and some government buildings.
A representative of the U.K.-based Ahvazi Arabs group had told Al-Jazeera that, in posting the letter, it had called for peaceful demonstrations in Khuzestan to mark what it called "80 years of Iranian occupation." But, the group claimed, the government had opted to use military force regardless.
Officials say at least five people were killed and some 200 arrested in clashes between the ethnic Arabs and security forces.
Iran's Intelligence and Security Ministry said on 18 April that many of the people who were arrested during the unrest had links to foreign groups or television networks that have been working to overthrow the Islamic government of Iran.
Youseef Azizi Banitorof, a journalist from Khuzestan, told Radio Farda that economic problems and poverty in the oil-rich province are the main reasons for discontent among ethnic Arabs.
"Whether we consider Mr. Abtahi's letter a forgery or not makes no difference to the issue; this has always been a ticking time bomb," Banitorof said. "We had warned authorities about [these problems] before; we had warned about the poverty belt around Ahvaz, that is mainly Arab. We had also warned about poverty in Abadan and other cities. We had always warned about it and offered some solutions, but nobody paid any attention."
Iranian authorities say the situation in Ahvaz is back to normal, and the city is reported to be calm.
A member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee said a fact-finding team will be dispatched to Khuzestan to investigate the causes of the recent unrest.