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Central Asia: OSCE Appeals To Kazakhstan To Restore RFE/RL Website

OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti (OSCE) The OSCE's representative on media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, has urged the government of Kazakhstan to restore access to RFE/RL's Kazakh-language website, which has been blocked for nearly six weeks despite repeated requests by RFE/RL that the service be restored.

In a letter to Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, Haraszti says he is "hopeful" the problem that began on April 11 was "merely technical" and could be resolved swiftly.

Haraszti calls RFE/RL an "important public-service source of information for Kazakh citizens, as well as for viewers, listeners, and Internet users throughout Central Asia and beyond."

Access has also been blocked to RFE/RL's websites in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, because KazTelecom, the state telecom operator, is a key Internet service provider across Central Asia.

The problems come as several RFE/RL reporters face harassment in Turkmenistan and amid growing international concern that Central Asia's media environment is deteriorating, including in comparatively progressive Kyrgyzstan.

Haraszti's letter arrives at a sensitive time for Astana. In 2010, the energy-rich Central Asian power is due to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The letter may draw fresh attention, however, on Kazakhstan's fitness for that office, given its shortcomings on human rights, democracy, and press freedom.

"I am convinced that the state Internet service providers were informed by Your Government that interference in providing service would violate Kazakhstan's press freedom commitments," Haraszti wrote in his letter, which is dated May 21. He adds that under OSCE Permanent Council Decision No. 633, participating states pledged "to take action to ensure that the Internet remains and open and public forum for freedom of opinion and expression."

However, rights groups decry the state of the media in Kazakhstan. In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, said Kazakhstan has "total control of influential broadcast media" and a "record of unpunished attacks on the press." The U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House has labeled the Kazakh media as "not free."

This week, the CPJ weighed in again, voicing concern about RFE/RL's blocked Central Asian websites.

"We are concerned about Kazakhstan's procrastination in restoring service to RFE/RL's local language website despite repeated requests by the broadcaster," Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement released on May 20. "The website is an essential alternative source of news and information for Kazakhstani audiences, and authorities should make it their priority to return it to them."

Kazakh officials so far have not publicly commented on the OSCE's letter, which came after RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin publicly criticized Kazakh authorities for failing to promptly address what he called "a very disturbing" problem. Gedmin said Astana's failure to respond to the outage "suggests it's a case of deliberate interference."

Further Concerns

Blocked websites are not the only Central Asian challenge facing RFE/RL, which is funded by the U.S. Congress and broadcasts in 28 languages in 21 countries.

In Turkmenistan, several RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents have recently faced harassment by the authorities. At least two correspondents have been told to stop working for RFE/RL or face unspecified consequences. Other reports have been denied official accreditation, thus depriving them of a legal basis for working as journalists.

The authorities in Uzbekistan forced RFE/RL to close down its Tashkent bureau in late 2005, although Uzbek-language broadcasting continues.

In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, international rights advocates have voiced concern over a new media bill that they say would kill any progress on press freedom made since Bishkek's 2005 popular uprising to oust leader Askar Akaev.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev is due to approve or reject the bill by May 24. It's unclear whether he will sign it into law.

"President Bakiev must veto this new bill, which obliterates Kyrgyzstan's attempt at broadcasting reform," the CPJ's Ognianova said in a statement on May 15. "If signed, this law would neuter the modest press freedom gains of recent years by giving the state total control over broadcasting."