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Innovative Or Soviet? Central Asian Countries Shift Attitudes To Reporting On IS

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

The recent changes could indicate that some of Central Asia's intelligence communities are beginning to accept that silence doesn't help combat Islamic State propaganda. (file photo)

The recent changes could indicate that some of Central Asia's intelligence communities are beginning to accept that silence doesn't help combat Islamic State propaganda. (file photo)

Central Asian media are changing their approach to reporting on the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Outlets in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have gone on the offensive, intensifying anti-IS propaganda efforts by broadcasting reports that highlight IS's atrocities and which warn citizens against joining the group. And Kazakhstan appears to have slightly softened its hard-line stance on blocking outlets that report on IS, allowing some reports to remain online.

Tajikistan

In the last few weeks, state media in Tajikistan have published a series of reports that slam IS ideology and activities, in particular its brutal killings and enslavement of women.

The director of Tajikistan's official news agency, Khovar, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service recently that it was "trying to make a greater contribution to the information war" against IS by making Tajiks aware of the extremist group's "inhumane acts."

Uzbekistan

A similar "information war" has been launched in Uzbekistan, where for three days in late June all major TV channels, including O'zbekistan, Yoshlar, and Toshkent, broadcast a series of talk shows titled Ko'zgudagi Biz (We In The Mirror) that slammed IS ideology.

The shows were attended by prominent figures, including Uzbek movie star Erkin Komilov, and Qobil qori and Rahmatilla qori, the imams of two of the country's largest mosques, according to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

The Uzbek talk shows broke new ground by admitting Uzbeks were joining IS.

According to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, officials acknowledged for the first time during the talk shows that the number of young people joining IS had increased, although a figure was not given.

One episode even featured an on-air telephone call with an Uzbek woman who claimed to be a "jihadi bride" in Syria. The woman said she regretted her decision to join IS but had not been able to find a way to escape.

The talk shows also warned that IS recruiters search for potential victims in social networks, reflecting reports that the extremist group was using the Internet to target Central Asians.

Following the talk shows, Uzbek TV channels are now working on a series of documentaries that will also counter IS propaganda, according to the Uzbek Service.

Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, where IS is still a "taboo topic," according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, there is no state media-led "information war."

But there are some signs that Kazakhstan's hard-line attitudes toward reporting on IS could be thawing.

The authorities have routinely blocked reporting on IS and have been particularly sensitive to reports showing ethnic Kazakhs in IS-controlled areas.

But the Kazakh Service says some of its more recent reports on IS have not been blocked -- including one about a Kazakh militant who shared photographs of himself burning his Kazakh passport.

Kazakhstan's National Security Service routinely reports on how many Kazakhs are fighting alongside IS.

And while anti-IS propaganda may not have made it to Kazakhstan's TV screens, the country has made some efforts aimed at deterring recruitment.

Some local mosques have begun to discuss IS with congregants and are asking people to work together to deter family members from joining IS.

And in May, local authorities in Uralsk commissioned an ideological play telling the story of a young man whose friends are arrested for stealing to support militants in Syria. However, the play appears to be a didactic tool that warns against the dangers of "nontraditional Islam," a term used in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the former U.S.S.R. to mean more fundamentalist streams of Islam.

Kyrgyzstan

In contrast to its neighbor Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has always been relatively open about reporting on IS, according to Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"IS-related topics are very 'popular' in almost all media outlets in Kyrgyzstan," Ashakeeva says, noting that the service's two documentaries (here and here) on IS were broadcast on Kyrgyz television.

Azattyk also regularly interviews high-ranking officials from the National Security Service, police, and Muftiat (Islamic authority), and law-enforcement officials have been supportive of reporting efforts, says Ashakeeva.

Why The Change?

The shift in approach in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan reflects changing attitudes among the authorities in Central Asia about the role of the media in the fight against IS.

Anecdotal evidence from RFE/RL's Central Asia services suggests that there has always been confusion in and among government agencies in the region, with intelligence agencies against and foreign and interior ministries for more open reporting on IS to make countries better able to fight it.

The recent changes could indicate that some of Central Asia's intelligence communities are beginning to accept that silence doesn't help combat IS propaganda.

"In Tajikistan, the government has transitioned from considering the problem of Tajiks being recruited to IS as a concern only for the security forces to a recognition that they should publicly acknowledge and combat the problem in a variety of ways," says Christian Bleuer, a Central Asia analyst.

But Bleuer does not believe the Tajik government considers its media efforts to be effective, arguing that if it did, it would provide more budget and more support for the efforts.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are following a Soviet model in regard to their media outlets, he says.

"First deny a serious problem exists, or at a minimum ignore it," Bleuer explains. "Second, finally acknowledge it when it can no longer be ignored or discounted, and attack it with clumsy, ineffective propaganda created by uncreative people who are detached from society in a very broad manner who have no insight into the thinking of recruits."

Another problem with using local media to convey anti-IS propaganda, at least in Tajikistan, is that few people consume it.

"Those who consume non-Russian media and social media are a small minority [in Tajikistan]," says Bleuer. "So it may not matter at all what local media outlets produce."

Patchy Reporting

Despite the "information war," daily coverage of IS's activities in Syria is still patchy in some Central Asian countries.

In Uzbekistan, local media does not provide news reporting on IS atrocities such as their killing of minorities and demolishing mosques, says RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

Neither does it report or challenge the Uzbek government's domestic measures against radical Islam, including increased control over mosques, or other crackdowns against religious Muslims such as the ban on organizing iftars -- fast-breaking meals during Ramadan -- in public places.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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