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Qishloq Ovozi

Seytkazy Mataev, the head of the Kazakh Journalists Union has just been placed under house arrest. He is just one of several Central Asian media professionals who has been feeling the heat in recent months.

The media in Central Asia has effectively been under fire since the five countries there became independent in late 1991. But pressure on non-state media is always stronger when the region's governments are having a hard time, and these are hard times for Central Asia, which has been experiencing an economic downturn in recent months.

The new crackdown on journalists has been most noticeable in Kazakhstan of late, but it's also happening in other Central Asian states. To make matters worse, it seems not much can be done about it in the current circumstances.

To look at developments in the struggle of independent media to survive in Central Asia, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a Majlis, a panel discussion.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Participating from London was Katie Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia program at the journalist advocacy group Article 19. Joining the discussion from New York was Muzaffar Suleymanov, a research associate for the Europe and Central Asia program of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In RFE/RL's studio in Prague, Lyudmyla Kozlovska of the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation joined in. And since everybody else in the studio was saying something, I made some comments also.

Suleymanov summed up the situation, saying: “We can see...press freedom conditions in the entire region are downgrading, the repressions, attacks are still ongoing, it's shocking that the authorities are cracking down against the messengers."

Journalist Detentions

On February 22, Kazakhstan's National Anticorruption Bureau detained Seytkazy Mataev -- the head of the country's Journalists Union for the last 15 years and also chairman of the National Press Club for the past two decades -- for allegedly embezzling about 380 million tenge (about $1.1 million at the current rate). His son Aset, the director of the independent news agency KazTag, was also briefly taken into custody before being released after questioning. An Almaty court on February 24 ordered Seytkazy Mataev placed under house arrest.

The Anticorruption Bureau is still investigating other possible violations. But Kozlovska pointed out that "financial accusations or tax accusations are quite normal and quite usual for Kazakhstan. They [the authorities] did it before, many times in the past" as a means to stop the work of independent journalists, rights activists, or political opposition figures. That's why doubts have been raised about the investigation of the Mataevs.

Seytkazy Mataev's detention came as journalist Yulia Kozlova from the independent Nakanune.kz website stands trial for possession of drugs. Nakanune.kz has written critical articles about the government and possible violations committed by Kazkommertsbank, the largest private bank in Kazakhstan. Police searched Kozlova's apartment when she was not there.

Morris said first of all, "Nakanune [doesn't] have a huge circulation and it's difficult to see what real threat they could pose to a situation in Kazakhstan. But Morris noted that Kazakhstan's authorities "tend to silence" independent media before elections. Kazakhstan is conducting early parliamentary elections on March 20 and "the threshold of tolerance is definitely getting lower and lower" in the run-up to the vote.

Kozlovska from the Open Dialog Foundation added, "There was a huge leak of information, a so-called Kazakh WikiLeaks, which was analyzed by independent journalists, especially journalists of Nakanune."

Subtle Pressure

Meanwhile, Tajikistan is headed for a national referendum this May to vote on extending the term of President Emomali Rahmon, who has now been in power since 1992. Tajikistan's independent media have learned to be cautious about reporting on affairs of state and on government officials. Tajik authorities, Morris said, have subtle ways of reminding journalists. "It's the indirect investigations, it's pressure, people made to feel unsafe, made to feel that they cannot report," she said.

Tahir mentioned that a correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, is currently in jail on dubious charges of narcotics possession and it is impossible to obtain any information about his condition from Turkmen authorities. Additionally, several Azatlyk correspondents in Turkmenistan resigned last year after "conversations" with Turkmen police or state officials.

The situation in Uzbekistan is as bad as that in Turkmenistan.

And Suleymanov reminded us that, even in Kyrgyzstan, where there is an independent media, authorities fluctuate in their tolerance of the press. Turat Akimov, the chief editor of the newspaper Dengi i Vlast (Money and Power) was attacked on February 20 by an assailant who was waiting for him near his home. Akimov says he was attacked because of his reporting.

Suleymanov drew attention to the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist and activist convicted of being part of interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment, making Kyrgyzstan "the only country in the region which has sentenced a journalist and human rights activist to life in jail," Suleymanov pointed out.

There seems to be no way for outside parties to convince the Central Asian governments to ease up on or, even better, halt the harassment of independent media in the region. "We do try to engage with them [the authorities]," Suleymanov said, "but they've walled themselves off."

The panel agreed that those countries which uphold rights such as freedom of the press need to send much stronger messages to the Central Asian governments.

Suleymanov recalled that sanctions had been imposed on Uzbek officials in the past but they were gradually lifted,perhaps giving Central Asian governments the feeling that it is possible to simply wait out such penalties.

Kozlovska said sanctions should be an option for convincing Central Asia's governments of the need to respect basic rights. She said, for example, that the leaders and top officials in these countries "have properties in Europe, they love to send their children to study...in very costly universities."

The panelists discussed these and other issues in greater detail during the discussion. You can listen to the full roundtable below:

Majlis Roundtable: The Latest Crackdown On Independent Media In Central Asia
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Uzbekistan's new Angren-Pap railway line cost some $i.9 billion. (file photo)

There are new steel threads on the old Silk Road.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, just reported that Uzbekistan has completed construction of the Angren-Pap railway line. It's quite a feat for Uzbekistan, especially as it was built much faster than original estimates. But it is symbolically also a sad reminder of the direction in which the five Central Asian states are heading.

The Angren-Pap connects the Tashkent area with Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Valley region. The line is 123.1 kilometers long; some 2,100 meters of new bridges were constructed and two tunnels, one of which is 19.1 kilometers long, were built. The project cost some $1.9 billion, some of which came from loans from the World Bank and Islamic Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

The reason for building the line? So Uzbek trains no longer need to transit through Tajikistan.

The governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- or more specifically the presidents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- are not on good terms and haven't been for about 20 years.

The borders established during Soviet times left a spur of Tajikistan jutting up into Uzbekistan, partially dividing Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley from the rest of the country. During the Soviet days, the train between Margilan, in eastern Uzbekistan, and Tashkent went by way of Khujand, Tajikistan.

This line continued running after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is how I usually traveled between the Uzbek capital and Ferghana Valley in 1992. Gradually, passenger trains have been phased out.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service spoke with Tolibboy Ashurov, a representative of Tajikistan's Sughd region, where Khujand is located, who said that even cargo trains have reduced service. In the past, "up to 4 million tons [of cargo] a year" of Uzbek freight passed through Sughd region, Ashurov said. "The transit of Uzbek goods brought some $28 million annually to Tajikistan's state coffers, but in recent years the volume of transit has dropped sharply," he added.

The new railway clearly benefits Uzbekistan. But conversely, it puts Tajikistan in a horrible situation. For one thing, Angren-Pap removes one of the few aspects of Uzbek-Tajik relations that really required some level of cooperation between the two governments since Uzbekistan needed the old line through Tajikistan to ship goods. Without this small bargaining chip, Dushanbe has no leverage to convince Tashkent to allow trains to reach Tajikistan, and all trains to or from Tajikistan must pass through Uzbekistan's territory.

That's already been a problem, for instance when Tajikistan was having construction material shipped by rail for use in building hydropower plants (HPPs). Tashkent objects to Tajikistan building HPPs on rivers that flow into Uzbekistan. Uzbek customs officials stopped and searched trains bound for Tajikistan; those with construction materials were turned back. These delays in railway traffic through Uzbekistan also led to food and fuel shortages in Tajikistan.

Sign Of The Times

So one could view the Angren-Pap line as an example of a failure of the Uzbek and Tajik governments to reach some agreement that could have kept the old line working smoothly and saved Uzbekistan nearly $2 billion. It stings a little worse realizing Uzbekistan originally planned for the project to take five years to complete but Tashkent pressed for the railway line to be completed faster and in the end it took just a bit more than two years.

This situation cannot be blamed solely on Uzbekistan. It is a failure that other Central Asian governments share. Tajikistan started construction of its own railway to bypass Uzbekistan in 2008. Turkmenistan completed a new line in 2011 that was built to bypass Uzbek territory but that was after Uzbekistan constructed a new railway to avoid Turkmen territory in 2009.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran just launched a railway (North-South Transport Corridor) linking the three countries in December 2014. But that is the only railway line built in post-Soviet Central Asia that actually connects two Central Asian countries. All the other railways built since late 1991 were built to other countries (Kazakhstan-China, Turkmenistan-Iran, and Uzbekistan-Afghanistan) or to avoid having to transit a neighbor's territory.

It says something about relations between the five Central Asian countries.

Ozodi's Abdullo Ashurov and Farruh Yusupov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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