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Central Asia: OSCE Media Envoy Talks About Region's Challenges

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) Media freedom in Central Asia has long been a thorny problem for Western organizations dealing with the region. The post-Soviet administrations there have proven resistant to allowing the sort of freedoms that would allow for criticism of government policies or officials. That presents a number of challenges for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media. That post is held by Hungarian writer, journalist, and human rights defender Miklos Haraszti. OSCE representative Haraszti tells RFE/RL about the challenges for media in Central Asia and areas where the OSCE has tried to help to improve the media climate.

PRAGUE, July 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Haraszti says the media situation in Central Asia is characterized by multiple print and Internet outlets. But, he adds, control over television and other broadcast media remains in a few select hands.

"It is basically a slope of pluralism which is higher in the case of the print press but a bit lower in the case of the broadcast media," Haraszti says. "Pluralism is quite confined in the whole region to the print media and actually toward the Internet, [and among] the different media types that the Internet is hosting. But in the broadcast field -- even in countries where there is privately-owned broadcast media, [and] even in countries where there is a kind of a readiness for a transformation of state-owned media into public-service media to be found -- the actual content of broadcast media is quite monopolized and not really covering the whole of political life in a fair and objective fashion."

No Quick Solutions?

Haraszti says he sees a discernable trend among Central Asian governments to tighten legislation to keep media outlets silent -- especially independent media outlets that question state policy or official conduct.
"I still couldn't visit Uzbekistan. Otherwise, I was able to visit all other four countries in the region. And I hope very much that the level of cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will improve in the future."

"We observe a sadly growing trend of administrative discrimination vis-a-vis the fragile and economically weak independent print media -- different types of new regulations, registration, re-registration regimes, accreditation problems, all of them in the form of a seemingly objective regulatory framework," Haraszti says. "But, in fact, [such measures] somehow always [are] hitting at the independent press and almost never at the official, state-owned press -- which is a form of discrimination."

Haraszti notes that all five Central Asian republics -- all of them OSCE member states -- inherited a Soviet mentality with respect to the media. He says that, as a result, it will be some time before anyone can expect media laws in the region to conform to those in Western democracies. But Haraszti says that-- in keeping with his OSCE mandate -- his office does contact Central Asian authorities to alert them to regulations that contradict those in other parts of the OSCE.

"We have set medium-range goals for media democratization, which we always do," Haraszti says. "So these are decriminalization of all types of punitive laws that penalize speech offenses in a criminal way, [that is, to] criminalize them. We ask all participating states to put all of those offenses into the domain of civil law, [that is] civil court, instead of criminalizing journalists for what they do even if they do it in a way that has to be sanctioned somehow."

Such laws have silenced or jailed journalists in several Central Asian states.

Occasional 'Intervention'

Haraszti says there have been times when it was necessary to stage what he terms an "intervention." He notes Kazakhstan, where the government complained of too many media outlets and introduced amendments that simply made it more difficult for media and journalists.

"They introduced these amendments, and now these amendments are actually making fines higher," Haraszti says. "They reintroduce registration, [or rather] they introduce re-registration, at any given occasion when business data -- like the office address -- has changed in a given outlet. And fees are introduced for registration. And a very important and actually very restrictive provision, [or] draft provision, is that the persons who have worked for any media outlet that has earlier been closed by a court ruling cannot apply to be editors with newly registered media, cannot register a media [outlet]. And that, I think, is something that probably constitutionally is a questionable requirement because it puts another punishment on top of what the courts at that time have ruled."

Haraszti expresses hope that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev might veto the draft law. But earlier this week, Nazarbaev signed the media amendments into law despite objections from rights groups inside and outside Kazakhstan.

Haraszti indicates there are some countries with which the OSCE's level of cooperation is still not good.

"I still couldn't visit Uzbekistan," Haraszti says. "Otherwise, I was able to visit all other four countries in the region. And I hope very much that the level of cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will improve in the future."

Haraszti says that an annual OSCE-sponsored event dedicated to the region's journalists might provide a possible avenue to improving ties with Central Asian states.

"We will be having a Central Asian Media gathering in October in Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, where we will be discussing the sustainability of media -- both privatized and new media start-ups," Haraszti says. "[We will discuss] how to make them compatible with the market [and] how to help their freedom by sane policy of the publisher and of the editor on the market. And we are having a first day of deliberations and a second day of training for the participants. This will be in October in Bishkek. Last year...we had participants from all five [Central Asian states], which was a very happy circumstance, and we hope to repeat it this year."

Haraszti also says he hopes to be making another tour through the region soon.