PRAGUE, April 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch, says a significant number of the human-rights violations her organization has recorded are made against journalists.
"We get many examples of journalists being harassed in Central Asia in a variety of ways, either through criminal or civil penalties, libel penalties, through verbal harassment and threats, anonymous attacks, bogus criminal charges, and censorship -- the whole gambit," Denber said. "We get numerous reports like that and in many cases journalists are attacked, they're imprisoned or, in some cases, they're forced into exile or otherwise just forced into silence."
'Working With Traitors'
Turkmenistan is the hardest place in Central Asia to work as an independent journalist. Recently, two RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan were detained for 10 days for their reporting. Correspondent Meret Khommadov described what happened to him.
"We signed some papers that said one thing -- but orally they warned us not to cooperate with [RFE/RL]," correspondent Meret Khommadov said. "They said the radio was working with bad people who are traitors and they named all the people who cooperated with Radio Liberty, like [former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was convicted in 2003 of plotting to kill Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and has since been jailed], [and] drug addicts and people who were traitors during World War II. They said it was not good to [work for RFE/RL]."
His colleague, Jumadurdy Ovezov, recounted the pressure some local elders put on the two correspondents.
"[The elders] yelled at us, told us we were traitors, enemies of the people," Ovezov said. "They told me I was a scoundrel and a liar. 'What are you doing?' they said. 'Who gave you the right?' they said. 'People like you don't have any rights,' they said."
The situation is not much better in neighboring Uzbekistan. Galima Bukharbaeva worked in Uzbekistan for the French news agency Agence France Press and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Her reporting often irritated Uzbek authorities. She said there were clear signs her reporting was unwelcome.
"The government, through various means, tried to restrict my activities, first they took away my accreditation -- they wouldn't renew my accreditation at the Institute for War Peace Reporting in 2002, and then in 2003 for Agence France Presse," Bukharbaeva said. "At the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's office, we had the feeling we were constantly being watched. There was a car parked across from our office constantly from 2004 to 2005 and several of our correspondents were beaten. In 2005 there was new pressure [being put on the media]. In Tashkent they organized pickets to insult me. There were some kind of 'students,' I don't know, some young people who obviously didn't know who I was, or what I did. But they were holding signs denouncing me."
A Decapitated Dog
Journalists have been abused and threatened in other Central Asian countries. Kenzhegali Aitbakiev, of the opposition newspaper “Ayna Plyus,” was attacked by a group of 10 men in Almaty on April 23. It was the third attack Aitbakiev had suffered since 2002.
One of the most extreme examples of intimidation in Kazakhstan was in 2002 when Irina Petrushova, the editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Respublika," found a decapitated dog hanging outside the newspaper's office and a note that read "There won't be a next time." Days later someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the office, causing severe damage.
In Kyrgyzstan, several journalists were convicted of libel in the mid-1990s for writing about property allegedly owned by President Askar Akaev and for articles criticizing state officials and business figures. Some journalists were imprisoned under a law that criminalized libel. That law has since been changed.
Critical articles about officials are widely believed to have led to Tajik journalist Jumaboy Tolibov being imprisoned on charges of drunken behavior last year. Appeals by local and international organizations helped get him out of jail early. When he was released on December 16, 2005, he repeated what he had said during his trial and his imprisonment.
"I have not committed any crime," Tolibov said at the time. "I have only gone through all of this because of the articles I wrote defending people's rights."
Mukhtar Bokizoda, the editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper "Nerui Sukhan," was sentenced to two years in jail in August last year for the theft of state property. Specifically, Bokizoda was convicted of using $500 worth of electricity without paying.
The Talent Drain
Each such case of harrassment produces a ripple effect that can quickly undermine a country's media environment.
"After me, so many talented journalists, really, really good people, left Uzbekistan,"Bukharbaeva said. "This is a huge loss for the country."
Many of journalists from throughout Central Asia have left the region in recent years, afraid for themselves and their families.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen, Tajik, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)