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Central Asia: Region's Reporters Need 'Structures Of Solidarity And Support'

Paul Quinn-Judge (RFE/RL) June 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Paul Quinn-Judge is a long-time journalist and former Moscow bureau chief for "Time" magazine whose reporting work has taken him throughout the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and even Washington. He has also trained journalists from Georgia and Kazakhstan during a fellowship with Knight International's International Center for Journalists. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service asked Quinn-Judge about approaches to promoting a free press in the Central Asian states.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is a very closed country [in which] there is no independent media and there is no freedom of the press... A similar situation can be observed in the region. You have experience working with Kazakh students and professionals. What can be done to improve the media situation in such closed countries as Turkmenistan?

Paul Quinn-Judge: I think you have to do almost everything. There seem to be no structures of protection, security, or support for journalists working in closed societies in the former Soviet space -- none that I know of. And this makes it all the more easy, I think, for many regimes to harass journalists, intimidate them, and sometimes force them out of their professions and other times, as in the case of Turkmenistan [where RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died under unclear circumstances while in custody in September 2006], to kill them.

The crucial issue in all these countries is getting young people involved -- people who aren't tired, who don't "think they've seen it all," and who also may have far more skills than the older generation did because they're actually getting concrete training.

So I think, obviously, the first thing that needs to be done is coordination across the region. There need to be reporting structures, so people in each country can get the word out about what's happening to them. And I think at the moment, many journalists in the region are trying to be a little too brave and a little to discreet about things. My very strong feeling -- having watched what happens in other parts of the former Soviet space, like Chechnya -- is that when the authorities start to harass somebody in a small way, it normally means it's going to escalate. I strongly feel that, as soon as journalists come under pressure, they should start passing out the word. This presupposes some form of structure of support for journalists in the region. It could be one of the preexisting international organizations, or one of the press groups, or it might have to be something new.

But obviously, you need to work in two directions. You need to work through your own structure -- that is, through your own management and your own leadership -- and one would very strongly hope that the leadership of Radio Liberty would give support to people who've come under pressure. At the same time, the pressure -- the support -- has to come from diplomatic institutions, which is crucial in the region, because I think these countries are still very sensitive to being challenged by outside powers. Thirdly, you need structures, I think, of journalists throughout the region who keep in touch with each other, who share information -- but they also share techniques of protection and security. Until you have those [structures], it's like so much in this part of the world -- people are going to be picked off one by one. If there are no structures of solidarity and support, life is going to become even more difficult, I think, for many journalists working in the region.

RFE/RL: Recognizing the press as the vanguard of democracy, why are democratic countries who are seeking closer cooperation with energy-rich countries, like Turkmenistan, unable to put the issue of press freedom as the key point of their relations?

Quinn-Judge: Well, the problem with democratic countries tends to be that they're democratic and therefore they have very short attention spans. Each term of office of each leader basically outlines the whole expanse of the attention span that they have towards a certain country. So there's very little continuity.

So I think that in many cases, one tends to see the problem being that democratic countries take a very short-term attitude to the situation. They express enthusiasm in words for democracy and they are much more interested in very quick -- or maybe even long-lasting -- economic ties. I think much more pressure has to be put on democratic countries to behave in a way that supports movements towards democracy in countries like Turkmenistan -- without guiding it, without giving the orders. Once you start to give the orders, of course, this is the perfect excuse for any government to close you down, to pick up people. It's a very delicate path.

I see individuals, officials, I mean, from democratic countries, individual ambassadors, for example, who've been quite willing to speak out; i've seen others, who are, very sadly, silent on these issues. I would hope that an organization like Radio Liberty could not only work on giving information to people in Turkmenistan about what's happening in their country, but could also pass the word back to democratic institutions that fund them that the time has come to really give much more support. Protection is crucial, because without protection you're not going to have information. Without protection, sooner or later, in many countries, you'll just have to pull out journalists, rather than have them there and let them become martyrs. And there are people who are very brave -- almost foolishly brave, at times, and willing to stay -- but people have to have structures of support. Without that, they are taking excessive risks, and without that, also they cannot function efficiently.

RFE/RL: How can journalistic standards and freedom of expression be advanced in closed countries? What is the key to transformation? You are involved in some projects...

Quinn-Judge: In extremely closed countries, it's very hard to tell, because everything is locked down. In semi-authoritarian countries, semi-democratic countries, in countries where the media has a certain degree of freedom, I think the answer to that question is easier -- which is that you need to encourage the parts of the media which are free, or which are willing to function and are able to function more or less openly, you need to encourage [and] train very good young people to go into media, and you need to give them the opportunity in media where they can work.

To take the most free, the most democratic country in the South Caucasus/Central Asia region, Georgia -- it has a lot of problems with this because its media is moribund, its media is stagnating, which means that superb young journalists are being trained who have nowhere to go. So that's the problem in a country like that. In other countries, you have very fine journalists being trained who also have nowhere to go but [that is] for political reasons. Obviously, the crucial issue in all these countries is getting young people involved -- people who aren't tired, who don't "think they've seen it all," and who also may have far more skills than the older generation did because they're actually getting concrete training.

The sort of training that young journalists from South Caucasus [or] from Central Asia get -- in Georgia, for example -- is extremely high. So they have the skills. And I think, sooner or later, they are going to develop the critical mass where they're going to be able to play a major role. In many countries, though, we're going to see journalists have to lie low, to a certain degree, given the repressive nature of the regimes. And to change that you need not only commitment inside but [also] pressure from outside.

The Erosion Of CIS Press Freedom

The Erosion Of CIS Press Freedom
Prominent Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov being arrested in Almaty last month (RFE/RL)

FROM BAD TO WORSE. RFE/RL and Freedom House experts held a panel discussion at which they analyzed the erosion of press freedom in many CIS countries. According to Freedom House rankings, in 1994, six of the 12 CIS countries were rated "partly free"; by 2004, 11 of the 12 were rated "not free."


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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