PRAGUE, April 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "Journalists, like human-rights defenders in some of the countries of Central Asia, work in conditions of tremendous adversity because many of the governments in Central Asia want to do everything to avoid public scrutiny of government policy, public scrutiny of government processes, of government budgets of any kind of government work," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch.
"They want to avoid scrutiny because they want to avoid accountability," she added. "For any journalist this poses tremendous problems because they can't get information. Often when they write, they know the kinds of problems they can face if they observe the principles of professionalism. So they have to write under self-censorship."
Elections Spell Trouble For Journalists
That is generally the situation throughout Central Asia, though the problems vary in degree from country to country. But there have been times when all these countries have imposed restrictions on the media.
Nuriddin Qarshiboev is the director of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT). He said in the years his group has been working a trend is discernible.
"In the seven years our organization has existed, we have concluded that during the period before elections the government tightens controls [over the media] and there is an increase in violations," Qarshiboev said.
Such tightening of controls and increases in violations against the press occur throughout the region.
"General elections are the time when scrutiny over media policy and media independence is the greatest," said Oliver Money-Kyrle, the director of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. "And it's a time when governments are most sensitive toward the reporter but it's also the time when they're being watched most closely by foreign governments."
International monitors have observed elections in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for more than a decade now -- officials in Turkmenistan have not issued the type of invitation necessary for rights groups to monitor elections.
Kyrgyzstan's presidential election in July 2005 was the first regional election in which foreign monitors did not find any media bias for pro-government candidates or harassment of the independent media.
Tajikistan will hold a presidential election in November, and NANSMIT's Qarshiboev says independent print media are already facing problems.
"The fact is that 'Nerui Sukhan' and 'Ruzi Nau' weren't officially banned, but they do not have an opportunity to be printed [in Tajikistan] or get subscriptions," he said. "The newspapers don't have the right to be printed in state-owned publishing houses and privately owned publishing houses are afraid of losing funding and resist printing these newspapers."
The Andijon Effect
Central Asian governments also have a record of cracking down on the media after major events such as widespread unrest.
Last year in May, Uzbek troops and police opened fire on hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijon. The Uzbek government calls the event an attempted coup and says its troops fired to put down a rebellion, killing 187 people in the process. Others say it was a demonstration, not a rebellion, and that casualties were far higher than the government's figures.
Galima Bukharbaeva, who was working for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was a reporter on the scene. She left Uzbekistan a few months later and now lives abroad.
"I had the feeling that with these authorities it was simply impossible to continue [working]," she said. "That people who could one day shoot an entire city, an entire city, simply everyone who was in the center of town, the second attack would clearly be against journalists who wrote about [Andijon], who told the world what really happened there."
The Uzbek government cracked down on the independent media and later moved against foreign media -- refusing to renew licenses for RFE/RL and Deutsche Welle -- and ordering the closure of several foreign organizations that helped train journalists. Bukharbaeva said that one result of Andijon was the demise of independent journalism in Uzbekistan.
"The biggest problem in Uzbekistan today is that journalism, independent journalism as a profession, is simply forbidden," she said.
(Shukrat Bobojonov of the Uzbek Service and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
Ukrainian journalists trying to cover Kazakhstan's presidential election being expelled from the country in December 2005
MUZZLED MEDIA: Below is a brief overview of key media issues in each of the five Central Asian countries. (prepared by Daniel Kimmage)
Although Kazakhstan has seen the harassment of journalists and media outlets that fall afoul of the state, the larger problem is one of access -- both to sensitive information and to the larger public.
Asked whether freedom of the press exists in Kazakhstan, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a media magnate in her own right -- said recently that one need walk only five minutes in Almaty to find a publication that elaborates "what a bad president we have and how I've monopolized the entire press." And she's right -- an opposition press exists.
But national television, with its enormous potential to shape popular opinion, remains either state-controlled or subordinate to allied interests -- as witnessed by a strict taboo on investigations of alleged corruption in the Nazarbaev family.
Nowhere in Central Asia has the fate of the media reflected political upheaval as strikingly as in Kyrgyzstan of late. The true fall of President Askar Akaev in March 2005 took place not when he fled the seat of government before an advancing crowd, but when opposition leaders later made an impromptu appearance on state television. A heady period ensued, with revelations of Akaev-era skullduggery suddenly front and center in national media. But the honeymoon proved short-lived.
A post-Akaev political morass deepened through 2005 and early 2006 amid high-profile contract killings and frustrated expectations of political and economic reform. And the media environment followed suit, with initial gains eroded by renewed state interference in television, salaried partisanship in the print media, and the rising influence of organized-crime groups.
Tajikistan's media environment has seen no such political upheavals. President Imomali Rakhmonov could rule through 2020, as long as he continues to secure reelection. He has consolidated his power in recent years -- seemingly with that aim in mind.
The media have also felt the consequences. As the country nears the end of its first decade since the 1992-97 civil war, the state maintains a firm grip national television and politically relevant print outlets. Meanwhile, a handful of tiny independent newspapers fight an increasingly uphill battle for access to printing facilities and readers.
The case of Turkmenistan speaks eloquently of a total stifling of media under blanket state control. News outlets trumpet the cult of President Saparmurat Niyzov and tout the purported glories of Turkmenistan's golden age under his rule. This reduces them to little more than a peephole on an otherwise sealed regime.
The media unfailingly broadcast Niyazov's pronouncements and feast on the latest official to fall from grace. On April 24, for example, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanov, who recently stepped down after a decade of dispatching onetime colleagues to unenviable fates, begged for mercy on the evening news as the president vilified her for corruption. Those same media outlets ignore whatever fails to fit the script of the decreed golden age.
President Islam Karimov insists that Uzbekistan's media are at war. What foreign media reported as evidence of a massacre in Andijon in May 2005, the president and officials have described as an "information attack" intended to undermine Uzbekistan's stability and sovereignty. Print and broadcast outlets, controlled either directly or indirectly by the state, are required to fight off this alleged assault by detailing extremist threats and foreign plots. They are also tasked with explaining the country's shift of geopolitical allegiance to Russia and China.
What space remains goes to a sanitized portrayal of Uzbek reality, with some warts left in -- local corruption and economic difficulties -- to lend credence to the grand official narrative espoused by slogans such as "Uzbekistan, a country with a great future."
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