The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based human rights monitor, last week called on Uzbekistan's president to release an ailing broadcaster. While Uzbekistan, which has three jailed journalists, may have particularly strict standards, it is not region's only offender. Our correspondent Beatrice Hogan spoke to CPJ's Chrystyna Lapychak about the state of press freedoms in Central Asia.
New York, 19 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- On his June 1997 radio show, Shadi Mardiev skewered the wrong person. His satire of a Samarkand prosecutor, Talat Abdulkhalikzada, earned the journalist an 11-year sentence for alleged extortion and defamation.
Incarceration has not been kind to Mardiev. The 63-year old journalist, who suffered two brain hemorrhages while awaiting trial, was twice hospitalized last year for a heart condition.
Chrystyna Lapychak, Director of CPJ's program for Europe and the former Soviet states, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview why her organization has championed Mardiev's case.
"We feel that the 11-year sentence that he received in November 1998 is basically a death sentence for him. And we're appealing on humanitarian grounds because we feel that that might be the most effective way to emphasize the need to release him considering his condition. And also because President Karimov was just re-elected and we thought that perhaps in response to his victory, he might consider releasing Mardiev."
Lapychak said that Uzbekistan has institutionalized censorship and that journalists in the country must first submit for review materials intended for broadcast or suffer reprisals. Three journalists were imprisoned last year. Restrictions on the press, however, are not limited to Uzbekistan. Lapychak says that journalism can be a dangerous profession throughout Central Asia, though the level of repression varies from country to country.
"Overall it is by far the worst region, so to speak, within the larger region that I am responsible for, which is the former Soviet republics and basically the former Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. It is, I think, the worst region, with regard to press freedom."
Lapychak suggests that political considerations affect the press environment. Each Central Asian country has a strong president who has been in power since independence. Keeping the presidential point of view circulating in the media is an important way for these leaders to consolidate their power and maintain public support.
Turkmenistan, where President Saparmurat Niyazov has recently been named president for life, offers no independent news outlets and falls on one end of the spectrum. On the other is Kyrgyzstan, which Lapychak says has the freest press environment in Central Asia.
But even in Kyrgyzstan, independent-minded journalists face difficulties. President Askar Akaev's recent initiative to eliminate criminal libel from Kyrgyzstan's penal code has been blocked by parliament. Kyrgyz lawmakers, who enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, have a vested interest in muzzling journalists who hold them accountable to the public.
In Tajikistan, the 1997 peace accords ushered in new non-governmental news media, including television, radio and print. But this year, Lapychak says a crackdown on journalists occurred before the presidential elections. Fearing reprisals, many Tajik journalists resorted to self-censorship, choosing not to print or broadcast material their government may perceive as offensive.
Kazakh journalists have also experienced pressure. Independent media outlets grew in the early 1990s following independence. But beginning in 1996, Lapychak says there have been both overt and surreptitious efforts to gain control of these outlets.
Controlling the media is an important way that President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his family can continue to hold onto power. Kazakhstan recently enacted a new telecommunications law that gives the government sweeping powers over the worldwide computer network known as the Internet.
Lapychak says government officials boast that the rapid pace of privatizing the media signals democratic reform. The new owners are comprised of people connected with the government. So, instead of promoting independent voices, private ownership has squashed them. The president's own daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, already controls the country's largest private television stations Khabar and NTK. But the buyouts continue.
"They [people affiliated with the government] are using their economic power and finances from the oil industry and the sale of state enterprises, and so forth, to buy out private media and basically concentrate it once again in their hands and working on behalf of their interests rather than the public interest."
Lapychak says that Central Asian countries use similar methods of silencing journalists. One way to force opposition news media into self-censorship is by using relentless bureaucratic scrutiny, including random tax audits and fire inspections. If this doesn't work, Lapychak says the governments can shut the news outlets down, buy them out, or take them over. Controlling the media helps the leaders maintain power in the short term. But it hurts the long-term development of these countries.
"It's not in their [Central Asian leaders'] self interest for maintaining power, certainly in the short-term. But in the long-term interest of their countries, their countries' development, and bringing them into the second half of the 20th century [allowing independent media] is in their interest and in the interests of every citizen of every single one of the Central Asian countries."
Lapychak says that no government can block the free flow of information forever. If Central Asia wants to participate in the global economy, new technology will eventually spread to the region. And despite governments' best efforts to assert its control over media, new ideas will slowly seep into Central Asia.