Officially, state censorship of the media in Central Asia has been abolished for some time. But governments in the region continue to use different means -- including financial and legal pressure -- to control and restrict the independent press.
Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asian media experts say state censorship in the region has given way to another phenomenon -- self-censorship. Fearing reprisal, journalists, and editors avoid criticizing political and business leaders.
RFE/RL spoke to two journalists based in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Both spoke on the condition that their names, and the names of their newspapers, not be used. They talked about the widespread exercise of self-censorship.
"If you read our newspapers, you can easily see that free expression does not exist here. It is so obvious," said one journalist.
"I am an Uzbek journalist myself," another began. "It's been almost a year since censorship was officially abolished in our country. But still we can't write what we would like to in newspapers because we are still afraid. Besides, we have editors who check our articles. The editors tell us what we're allowed to say and what we're not. That's why I say we don't have free speech and a free press yet."
Journalists have been intimidated, assaulted, and beaten up for criticizing their governments' policies and prominent members. Independent newspapers and radio and television stations have been shut down or refused operating licenses. It is not uncommon for courts in the region to convict independent journalists and editors of a number of charges, from hooliganism to embezzlement. Observers say almost without exception, the court cases are based on the journalists' work and not any criminal activity.
Of the five Central Asian states, only Turkmenistan is devoid of an independent press. In the remaining four states, the situation is more or less the same. In Uzbekistan, three journalists -- Toshmurod Toshev, Ghairat Meliboev and Ergash Bobojonov -- have been arrested over the past two months for writing articles on corruption and religious topics. Uzbek authorities also shut down the "Adolat" independent newspaper.
In Kazakhstan, opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov was convicted on rape charges following a controversial trial that drew criticism from both local and international media and human rights groups. In Tajikistan, three correspondents from SM-1, an independent television station in the city of Khojand, were accosted at their workplace and forced into army service. The incident occurred just one day after SM-1 aired a special program about the illegal army conscription.
Under such circumstances, some Western media experts say, it is hardly surprising that many Central Asian journalists choose to censor themselves. Eric Johnson is the executive director of Internews International, a nongovernmental organization that supports independent media in countries in transition.
"I am sure I would [opt for censorship myself]. That said, there are often creative ways to be able to cover issues that are touchy, or sensitive. In most of Central Asia, most of the danger to journalists, in my experience, comes from local governments. Probably, the first thing you're going to do is spend a lot of time trying to ensure you have friends among the local government folks."
Governments in Central Asia often use financial pressure to restrict and suppress independent media outlets. In Tajikistan, the Sharki Ozod state-owned printing house -- which prints nearly 80 percent of the publications in Tajikistan -- this year raised the price of its services by 40 percent. The price of newsprint, most of which is imported from Russia, is also high. But Central Asian authorities have repeatedly ignored calls for tax breaks on publications using the imported paper.
Financial difficulties have dealt a severe setback to the media market overall. Few people buy newspapers, let alone regular subscriptions. And news publications are rarely distributed in the countries' rural regions because of high transportation and delivery costs. Many Central Asians recall with nostalgia the relative luxury of the Soviet era, when newspapers and magazines were delivered directly to homes six days a week, even in remote villages.
These days, however, authorities sometimes seem determined to form a barrier between the population and the media. Mahmad Said Ubaidulloyev, the mayor of Dushanbe, recently issued a decree to destroy all newspaper and magazine kiosks in the capital city.
In Uzbekistan's Samarqand Province, authorities have prohibited the regional paper from being distributed in neighboring provinces. Ghafur Mahmudov, the editor-in-chief of the "Ovozi Samarqand" newspaper, tells RFE/RL that the provision has put a severe strain on his budget.
"We have signed agreements and have a right to send our newspapers to other provinces," he said. "Our publication is in high demand in the Surkhon-Darya, Kashka-Darya, Navoi, and Bukhara provinces. It is an officially registered newspaper. I can't understand why our authorities don't allow us to send the newspaper to other provinces. Why can't a paper published in Samarqand go to Bukhara? It is part of the same country, after all."
Olim Koriev, the manager of the independent Asia Radio and Television Company in Khojand, Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL that financial hardship has kept many media outlets in the region from buying modern broadcasting equipment.
"Technical equipment is very important for the quality of our production. Our journalists attend seminars [organized by international groups] to learn how to work with modern equipment -- equipment we don't have, unfortunately. Sometimes in the middle of a live TV interview the picture disappears because the cameramen are using an outdated tape since they didn't have a new one."
The impact of self-censorship and financial pressure is obvious both in terms of state-owned and independent media outlets. State-owned newspapers fill their pages with full coverage of presidential visits and speeches, while many nongovernmental papers opt for "harmless" topics like family issues, science, horoscopes, beauty, and cooking tips. Some simply use articles from Russian and other foreign media.
But some Central Asian journalists still venture beyond the self-imposed boundaries of most media outlets. Johnson says Western agencies are eager to help journalists committed to fighting for free-press rights in their countries.
"Things are not very easy. The parliaments are not very willing to speak up in terms of freedom of expression. But there are a lot of folks who want to do independent media [work] and they are definitely worth helping. It is inspiring to work with them, because they try very hard. They get beat up, they get taken to court. By 'beat up,' I don't mean usually physically so much as persecuted. But they keep trying."
Internews -- along with other Western groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States Agency for International Development -- are cooperating to promote independent media in Central Asia.