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Central Asia: Media Watchdogs Say Media Far From Free (Part 1)

Uzbek President Islam Karimov Today is the UN-declared World Press Freedom Day, an annual observance meant to highlight the importance of a free press for civil societies. In the first-part of a two-part series, we look at press freedom in Central Asia. The international media-rights group Reporters Sans Frontieres this week listed Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan among the top oppressors of media freedoms last year. Fellow media-watchdog Freedom House went a step further in its annual report, characterizing those two countries as the "worst of the worst" and labeling the remaining Central Asian states as "not free." Kyrgyzstan, however, appears to be using the momentum of its recent revolution to turn things around.

Prague, 3 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Have the winds of change led to increased media oppression in Central Asia?

Pascale Bonnamour, who heads the Europe desk at Reporters Sans Frontieres, says the media environment in Central Asia has significantly worsened in the past year. And the main reasons, she says, are Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" and Kyrgyzstan's revolution in March.
The situation is perhaps the first time that journalists from a semigovernment newspaper and students from a state university have stood against the authorities in an effort to defend media freedom.

"I think the situation is worsening more and more, because of the geopolitical situation," she said. "Especially at the end [of 2004], there was a big tension in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Press freedom is very precarious. Many opposition journalists were arrested, some journalists were beaten up. We can speak about brutal repression of independent media."

Bonnamour says the corrupt and authoritarian governments of Central Asia took the revolution in Kyrgyzstan as a signal to oppress the media even more. Bonnamour describes Turkmenistan as one of the most repressive countries in the region. She calls it a country where "journalism amounts to blatant propaganda for the dictatorship based on a cult of personality around [President Saparmurat] Niyazov."

And she says that among the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan has suffered the most serious setbacks since the end of March. "I think the situation in Uzbekistan is worsening because Uzbekistan is close to Kyrgyzstan," she said. "I think we've already seen serious repressions against journalists there. Journalists might be tortured in jails because this is a usual practice in Uzbekistan. Terrorism became a means for all those in power to put [dissident] journalists in jail, for example Sobirjon Yoqubov."

Yoqubov is a 22-year-old correspondent for the Tashkent-based newspaper "Hurriyat" who was arrested on 11 April on charges of unconstitutional activity and extremism. He now faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Yoqubov has reported on Islamic issues and on the killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in Ukraine. Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute have condemned Yoqubov's arrest, saying the charges are politically motivated.

In another case, Jizzakh-based journalist Ulugbek Khaidarov was beaten on 23 April. The case has drawn suspicions because Khaidarov has written articles exposing corruption and criticizing a local governor's activities.

Reporters Sans Frontieres has written a letter to Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov asking that Khaidarov's beating be investigated.

Kudrat Babajanov, a Tashkent-based correspondent of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, believes the crackdown in Jizzakh might be related to a recent series of articles that have appeared on the Internet. The articles, written under the name Safar Abdullaev, alleged that the Uzbek Interior Ministry has drafted a confidential document that outlines a plan for state repression against the media. The plan includes a blacklist of journalists -- and Khaidarov is among those listed.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Babajanov further explains the situation in Jizzakh: "[Repression] against human rights activists and independent journalists strengthened in Jizzakh in the last month. They are often beaten. It looks like a plan. I don't know who worked out or conducts this plan. Maybe articles under the name of Safar Abdullaev are not groundless, because Ulugbek Khaidarov's name was on the blacklist."

In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the media faced particularly strong pressure from authorities ahead of and during their most recent elections. Bonnamour of Reporters Sans Frontieres singles out Tajikistan's February parliamentary polls. However, she cites as a positive development the Tajik opposition's launching of its own website.

Bonnamour says that in Kazakhstan, however, the situation is rather negative. "Concerning Kazakhstan, I think the situation is not so good," she said. "For example, [Irina Petrusheva], editor in chief of the main and most popular opposition [weekly, "Respublika,"] was arrested by the Russian police at [the request] of Kazakh authorities [on 23 April]. Last year, we had two cases of journalists who were murdered. Of course, it's very difficult to prove they were murdered because of their journalistic activity, but I'm pretty sure it was the case. They made some inquires and reporting on some sensitive issues."

Of the Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan is the only one that has experienced a positive trend in terms of media freedom. This comes following the country's revolution, with the new leadership headed by interim President Kurmanbek Bakiev calling for increased media freedoms and the privatization of several state-run media outlets.

Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of the daily "Res Publica," tells RFE/RL that state-controlled media outlets are now under scrutiny, particularly those that had ties to ousted President Askar Akaev's family: "They face difficulties. I believe, government-controlled media outlets feel lost because [before the revolution] they didn't limit their activity to giving [positive] opinions of the government and president, but were also criticizing and undermining the opposition. At present, they are unable to give a balanced range of opinions because many oppositionists, experts, political analysts, and politicians are unwilling to cooperate with those media outlets."

Sydykova says that correspondents of state-owned media in other post-Soviet countries are likely to find themselves in similarly awkward situations in the event that revolutions or radical reforms take place in their countries. Therefore, she says, they should focus on being fair and unbiased in their reporting, and avoid disseminating state propaganda.

Bonnamour of Reporters Sans Frontieres says the Kyrgyz events have had a serious impact on journalists in Central Asia.

"I don't know exactly if journalists are ready to fight and to make a revolution. But I think the mentality is changing. If there is a serious violation of press freedom, for example a [journalist's] murder, I think it could be a beginning to make demonstrations, to take on the streets and to react very strongly."

The case of Yoqubov in Uzbekistan may be a test case. The journalist's colleagues at "Hurriyat" have vowed to continue to fight on his behalf, and journalism students at the Tashkent State University of World Languages plan to write a letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov asking him to release Yoqubov. The situation is perhaps the first time that journalists from a semigovernment newspaper and students from a state university have stood against the authorities in an effort to defend media freedom.