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Central Asia : Russia's Rising Image -- Still No Local Alternative To Russian Media (Part 3)

The past decade of Central Asian independence has not borne fruit in terms of developing a local alternative to the so-called "central TV" or "central press" -- otherwise known as Russian media. A majority of the region's 55 million people still watch only Russian television and read only Russian newspapers. In the last of our three-part series on Russia's re-emerging influence in Central Asia, RFE/RL looks at the role of Russian media in the region.

Prague, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In Uzbekistan, people commonly refer to local journalists as "messengers from heaven" -- an ironic dig at correspondents whose over-the-top reports read like paeans to Uzbek President Islam Karimov and the country's sterling economic achievements.

The situation is more or less the same throughout Central Asia. In Turkmenistan, local media carefully record the activities of the nation's "great leader." In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, newspapers and television stations are also subject to varying degrees of government control.

Stephen Hegarty is a Central Asia analyst with the InterMedia Survey Institute based in Washington, D.C. He said Central Asians have grown tired of the "rosy" news reports emanating from local media, and are turning to Russian news and television as a better source of information: "In every country in Central Asia the leading television stations are from the Russian Federation. For example, in Kazakhstan the leading TV station is, of course, ORT. About 80 percent of the people say they watch it every day. Compare that to local TV, which is not as nearly as popular -- only about 40 percent of the people in Kazakhstan say they watch Kazakh TV everyday. It's the same in nearly every Central Asian country."

Kyrgyzstan is no exception. Kyrgyz author Solidjon Djigitov said the quality of local programming leaves a lot to be desired: "First of all, they [local media] are very boring. Second, the way material is presented is very poor, and then third, there is their lack of money. Our only local channel in Kyrgyzstan is a state channel. There are some private channels, but it's believed that they are bribed or have been privatized by our rulers."

Hegarty says the quality of Russian programming is markedly more sophisticated that anything local Central Asian channels produce. InterMedia polls indicate that many Central Asians think of regionally produced news reports as watered-down copies of news broadcast on Russian channels days earlier. In terms of entertainment programs, Hegarty says, Russian channels are again far superior to any local alternatives.

Part of the problem, Hegarty says, is that local media in Central Asia are hamstrung by the country's repressive media policies and tight state censorship: "This [state censorship] is a huge factor. There is no question about it. Like I said, people really don't turn to local TV for news, especially in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, because they know that what they are getting from local TV, or local radio, or local newspapers, is heavily censored, isn't telling them the whole truth, gives only positive aspects of life in these countries without talking about real issues or real problems."

The failure of local media to provide a reliable and entertaining alternative to Russian programming is having an additional effect: Central Asians are taking a non-critical approach to the Russian news they consume. This tendency, in turn, is opening the gates to Russia's reemerging influence in the region.

Malik Abdurazzoqov, an independent Uzbek analyst, says the mass media -- TV in particular -- plays a crucial role in defining social mores and beliefs. In Central Asia, he says, local governments have already lost much of their influence to the programming and newspapers emanating from Russia. He says Central Asians' near-complete dependence on Russian media is giving Moscow an easy opportunity to manipulate public opinion in its former Soviet neighbor-states.

"During the Balkan war [the NATO-led war against Yugoslavia in 1999] there was an opinion poll conducted in Uzbekistan. Results showed that more than 90 percent of respondents supported Serbs. But logically, one would expect public opinion to be on the side of the Bosnian Muslims [since 94 percent of country's population are Muslims]. So why then did Uzbeks support Serbs? Because they were watching Russian TV channels [which were strongly pro-Serb], and their opinion was based on Russian reports. This clearly shows that public opinion in Uzbekistan is being formed under strong influence of the Russian media."

The tight restrictions placed on regional media in Central Asia also means that local journalists, envious of the relative political and financial independence of their Russian counterparts, use Russian news to set the tone for their own reports. One correspondent for an Uzbek national newspaper, who wished to be anonymous, had this to say: "As a print journalist, I can say that local mass media is more and more often using Internet information. But when it comes to analysis, we still rely on the Russian press's commentary and analysis, because they are quick and efficient. Besides, people here love them."

These combined trends raise a question: Can Central Asians remain politically and spiritually independent from Russia's social and political influence? Kyrgyz author Solidjon Djigitov appears to think not -- particularly, he said, because Central Asia has so little true independence to begin with: "Of course, there is no freedom. Spiritual freedom is absent. This is because we couldn't create a progressive and modern culture [after independence], we couldn't put a fundamental knowledge of modernity into our languages. Besides, our intelligentsia -- I mean all the Central Asian intelligentsia -- is very provincial. There are not so many developed personalities. Most of the smart, talented, and sharp-minded Kyrgyz are working either in the U.S. or in Russia. These people have been leaving the country."

Djigitov says local governments are to blame for Central Asians' growing dependence of Russian media. He said rather than using the past decade of independence to modernize information technology and media practices, Central Asia's authoritarian leaders have been ruling as if they were isolated medieval sultans: "Unfortunately, we [Central Asians] are alienated from each other. Cultural, information ties have been cut off between us. We [in Kyrgyzstan] don't know what's happening, for example, in Kazakhstan, unless Russian central TV reports on it. We don't get any books -- either research or literature -- from each other. We don't get any newspapers, for example, from Uzbekistan, and they don't get ours. We don't watch Uzbek TV -- we get Kazakh channels very irregularly. This is too bad. It would be much better for us small nations [like Kyrgyzstan] if [bigger Central Asian nations] like Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan would develop into industrialized countries with a modern culture. For unfortunately, Soviet rule [based on dividing up Central Asia] has been in place too long."

But Djigitov says he is optimistic that positive changes will come in a matter of time. He says in 50 years, when Central Asia is free of its current ruling elite, new generations will focus their efforts on realizing the region's potential and push for true political and cultural freedom.

Stephen Hegarty of InterMedia says he is also optimistic about the future of media in Central Asia. He says Central Asians, once given a viable local alternative, are happy to move away from Russian media It is a view supported by the growing popularity of regional radio stations, which are the least restricted of the local media outlets, and which have drawn listeners away from Russian radio by improving programming and offering audiences a greater variety of options. A free and established media, Hegarty says, would go a long way toward restoring the social, political, and cultural independence of the Central Asian mind-set.