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Qishloq Ovozi

Governments throughout Central Asia seem to be heaping pressure on independent media, even in Kyrgyzstan, which is less authoritarian than its neighbors. (file photo)

The media situation in Central Asia, generally, has been bad for many years now.

But, according to recent reports by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and New York-based group Freedom House, the situation with media in Central Asia actually got even worse in 2016.

It was not only the "usual" Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- that received low marks in the two groups' annual reports. The lowered ratings for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and even Kyrgyzstan indicated that all three were increasing pressure on nonstate sources of information.

What just happened and why? Is this a new trend in Central Asia -- policies that strangle independent media?

To try to answer these questions and look at other aspects of government moves against the news organizations and the Internet, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss events concerning the media in Central Asia in recent months.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL's Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. We were fortunate to have people who played key roles in preparing the two reports mentioned above. From Paris, the Majlis was joined by Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. And the project director of Freedom House's annual rights report Nations In Transit, Nate Schenkkan took part from New York (Nate also hosts the Central Asianist podcast, which we at the Majlis highly recommend to everyone]. I have a connection to media in Central Asia, so I participated also.

Bihr started the discussion out by noting that "the situation with press freedom across all Central Asia in general has further deteriorated."

Control Habit

The situation for media in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan has worsened significantly.

The Majlis session came the day after it was reported that 20 journalists had fled Tajikistan recently to escape the government's tightening grip on media.

Bihr spoke about the "increasing habit of trying to control the Internet across Central Asia" and recalled, "In May last year, when Kazakhstan was marked by huge protests, the authorities were quick to make Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, WhatsApp, etc. unavailable, which obviously prevented the free flow of information."

"Such kind of 'progress' also has been made in Tajikistan," he added.

Schenkkan said, "We actually see kind of a mixed strategy in [Central Asian] countries, particularly in Kazakhstan I would say, where defamation and libel suits have had a role for quite a while, in addition to some of those more aggressive tactics… like imprisonment."

Bihr saw a key similarity in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan that might partially explain why those two countries have recently been putting so much pressure on nonstate media. "Both in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan we can say that aging leaders are in power and succession wars have already started behind the curtains, this is clearly a factor of stress for the political life and press freedom in these countries."

Libel, Defamation Suits

Using the court system to shut down media that is critical of the authorities is nothing new. Schenkkan spoke about some of the independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that are "constantly subject to different kinds of libel and defamation suits."

And Schenkkan said, "I think [Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek] Atambaev is picking up on that."

More than a dozen lawsuits have been initiated against independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan recently.

According to Bihr, "the increasingly defiant speech of President Atambaev in Kyrgyzstan has been very worrying with very harsh words being pronounced [against journalists and media outlets]."

Both Bihr and Schenkkan pointed out the leadership change in Uzbekistan offers some small hope for an improvement in that country.

"The replacement of President [Islam] Karimov by President [Shavkat] Mirziyaev in Uzbekistan indeed raises hopes due to what appears to be increased pragmatism of the regime," Bihr explained.

Schenkkan agreed "there's been this wave of expectations after Karimov's death in August and a lot of attention to whether there could be some kind of thaw in Uzbekistan."

But they said Uzbekistan remained near the bottom of these most recent rankings by both their organizations, because their recent reports dealt with events during 2016.

Encouraging signs such as the release from prison of Uzbek independent journalist Muhammad Bekjonov, one of the longest imprisoned journalists in the world, in late February this year were not factored into the RSF and Freedom House reports that have just been issued.

Lack Of Leverage

Turkmenistan also stayed near the bottom of both lists, but there was no room for optimism from any of the panelists that the media situation could improve there.

Schenkkan said the very sparse information that can be gleaned from Turkmenistan kept that country from being at the very bottom of the Freedom House rankings. "You have a hundred-point scale," Schenkkan said, and added "we're at 98 on Turkmenistan right now."

The possibilities for convincing governments in Central Asia to ease their media policies are limited. "There are not so many powers that have some leverage on Central Asian countries," Bihr said.

Bihr noted, "The European Union… is continuing talks with Kazakhstan, for instance, about enhanced partnership agreements despite the fact the previous partnership agreement included some clear human rights conditions that were never fulfilled by Kazakhstan."

In the United States, President Donald Trump's administration has so far not sent any strong signals that it would press Central Asian governments on rights issues.

Schenkkan said, "I think there's no question but that the leaders in the [Central Asian] region have decided that they can go after the press pretty much as hard as they want and that there's practically no consequences, and that includes internationally."

Schenkkan added that Central Asian governments should be cautious in their treatment of independent media. Having only state media carries inherent risks for governments such as those in Central Asia.

"They [the Central Asian governments] still can't hide what's happening in terms of economics, in terms of politics," Schenkkan explained, and warned "it's dangerous for there to grow too large a gap between what you tell people [is] happening and what's actually happening."

The Majlis panelists had much more to say on these topics and other matters concerning the plight of the media in Central Asia.

An audio recording of the session can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Bad Times For Media Freedoms In Central Asia
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

UzGazOil gas stations are now Uzbekneftegaz gas stations.

A group of workers in Uzbekistan has faced its state-owned employer and made demands.

That is something unheard of in Uzbekistan for many years. It would practically have been treason when Islam Karimov was president of Uzbekistan.

But Karimov died in September, and new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has been talking a lot about the responsibility of authorities to the people.

Seems someone believed him.

That someone is a group of employees at UzGazOil gas stations. Actually, they are now employees of Uzbekneftegaz gas stations, since in February the company rebranded. (Or, more appropriately, translated the company’s name into Uzbek. Uzbekneftegaz, in Uzbek, means "Uzbek oil and gas.")

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, spoke to some of the workers who were at this unusual meeting with company officials on April 20 in Tashkent.

Rebranding was at the heart of the matter, since many gas-station employees were reportedly under the impression the new name would mean the company’s management would be changed and they would finally be paid on time.

Nothing of the sort.

One of the complaints made at the meeting with Uzbekneftegaz officials was that wages -- at least full wages -- had not been paid since the company changed its name.

"I haven’t received my salary for two months already," one employee told Ozodlik. "I went to the accountant, but instead of giving me my salary, which should have been 1 million soms" -- or about $125 -- "they gave me only 300,000 soms."

This source said he soon discovered he was not the only employee with this problem, and others from Uzbekneftegaz confirmed to Ozodlik that they have had similar problems.

So he went to the April 20 meeting, along with many other Uzbekneftegaz employees.

"The hall was filled with people," he said. "[At the meeting] there were those who had not received their salaries and those who were dismissed and not paid any severance."

Another complaint by Uzbekneftegaz employees was that some of their co-workers had reportedly been dismissed without grounds since the company rebranded.

According to this Uzbekneftegaz employee, the company’s director, Batyr Turaev, attended, along with two other company officials. There are two videos, purportedly from the meeting.

One shows a man saying he has eight children and that he was unfairly fired. "Why didn't they give me severance pay?" he asks, adding. "How can I feed my children now?"

Workers in the hall shouted out their support:

In Rare Flare-Up, Uzbek Workers Lay Into Management (1)
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The other video shows a man believed to be Uzbekneftegaz chief Turaev trying to calm the workers:

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While workers at the meeting in Tashkent appeared able to voice their complaints to management, there was no indication that any of their demands would be met.

However, there has also been no word so far that any of the employees who complained at the meeting were punished or threatened in any way, as would almost surely have been the case when Karimov was Uzbekistan’s president.

Another Uzbekneftegaz employee who was at the meeting said that he, too, had earlier approached officials demanding his unpaid salary. This employee said officials at Uzbekneftegaz told him -- before the meeting, and in an implied threat -- that he would be put on a list compiled by the National Security Service (SNB).

He said that to head off other employees from demanding unpaid wages, management would call some employees and tell them, "People from the SNB were asking about you."

Again, so far, there is no indication the SNB has actually become involved in the Uzbekneftegaz labor dispute. Comments about the SNB from management seem to be playing on fears from earlier days that the powerful security agency could step in and quiet the situation.

After the Tashkent meeting, a rumor circulated that Turaev had been dismissed.

Ozodlik contacted Uzbekneftegaz and was told, "Batyr Turaev has not gone anywhere. He comes to work every day."

Turaev is an interesting figure.

Once, a company called Zeromax that was registered in Switzerland owned the gas stations of UzGazOil. For many years, Zeromax was virtually the only Western company to get contracts in Uzbekistan’s gas-and-oil sector, a situation some attributed to the company’s alleged links to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the late President Karimov, who was then spending a lot of time in Switzerland.

Zeromax’s fortunes started to wane and the company’s stake in UzGazOil gas stations was given over to the Uzbek government in 2010.

In 2012, a former employee of Zeromax was named director-general of UzGazOil.

That person was Batyr Turaev.

Returning to the Uzbekneftegaz gas-station employees and their grievances, some of the workers told Ozodlik that they had sent their complaints to the Uzbek government’s virtual-office website and were waiting for a response.

They also said that airing their problems so publicly was fully in accordance with Mirziyaev’s statements that, in this Year Of Dialogue With The People, which the country declared for 2017, officials were obliged to resolve the problems of the people.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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.