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Media Matters: March 14, 2006

14 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 4
While the degree of media freedom varies considerably among the five countries of Central Asia, there appears to be a region-wide aversion to the thorny issue of religious freedom. It is difficult to gauge whether the reasons might lie in a reluctance to confront controversy -- as some argue -- or in state-imposed strictures or even a fear of offending.

The result is that, aside from cursory references to the dominant religions, the domestic media have generally shied away from questions of faith. But civil-society groups and independent media outlets -- with the help of increased Internet penetration -- are trying to change that.

The barriers to free expression are considerable in this region, where authoritarian administrations are often eager to keep a tight lid on public debate.

That presents a considerable challenge for media organizations, which operate without the safeguards enjoyed by their counterparts in the West, and sometimes leaves local journalists fearing for their own safety.

Eric Freedman is on the faculty of the journalism school at Michigan State University. He recently conducted research into independent news websites' coverage of religion in Central Asia. He concluded that the topic of freedom of conscience remains almost untouched among domestic media.

"News organizations -- whether they are independent or supported by [nongovernmental organizations] or a state or a party -- tend to avoid controversies and political controversies," Freedman said. "And religion certainly falls into that category of public policy and political controversy in the region."

Local journalists tend to avoid religious freedom issues, he says, while coverage of religion is often limited to dominant faiths -- like Sunni Islam -- and other officially recognized confessions, such as Orthodox Christianity.

In countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, authorities regularly exercise control over what media outlets publish. That allows them to publish selectively to achieve official aims.

In mid-January, an official from the Uzbek State Committee for Religious Affairs, Behzod Qodyrov, touted a rise in the number of registered religious groups to 2,186. The figure, he argued, "proves the absence of any restrictions or obstacles to freedom of religion in Uzbekistan."

Igor Rotar is a Central Asia correspondent for Forum-18, a Norway-based news agency specializing in religious rights. He told RFE/RL that the Uzbek announcement was a prime example of official propaganda.

"There was a recent statement by an official who wrote that so-and-so many religious organizations are registered in Uzbekistan and that this is a proof of religious freedom," Rotar said. "But he 'forgot' to mention that this number is equal to just one-third the number of religious organizations registered in Kazakhstan [where the population is smaller]. He also said that the Jehovah's Witnesses group was registered in Uzbekistan but he 'forgot' to mention that they are registered in just two towns. In other parts of the country, police regularly detain Jehovah's Witnesses. Two people served over one year in prison each simply for their belief."

Michigan State University's Freedman said Internet news agencies, NGOs, and the international community have become major providers of information on religious issues in Central Asia despite obstacles to Internet viewing.

The Internet appears to be partly filling the void left after Western radio stations -- including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- were closed down in Uzbekistan. Freedman singles out the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting; the Open Society Institute's; and IRIN News, the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks. He adds the Moscow-based website and Forum-18 to his list of Internet pioneers:

"It looks at [religious freedom] and it reports on it in a way that is very much like traditional Western European and U.S. coverage in that stories tend to be fact-based," Freedman said. "There is an attempt to obtain multiple viewpoints, although what the Forum-18 experience and what the other news services we looked at have encountered -- and certainly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- is that government officials are often not responsive to press inquiries regardless where they come from."

Still, the environment for such reporting remains mostly unfriendly in official terms. Independent media outlets feel compelled to rely heavily on anonymous sources. Local reporters often work under pseudonyms to avoid harassment and possible prosecution.

Forum-18's Igor Rotar was detained upon his arrival in the Tashkent airport in August and deported to Russia two days later. He has reported on harassment of Baptists in Kazakhstan and Hare Krishna followers in western Uzbekistan, and he wrote about the demolition of a synagogue in Tajikistan, among other issues.

However, information providers are optimistic about the Internet's future in Central Asia despite the current obstacles for would-be viewers. Daniil Kislov is the founder of the information agency:

"According to our estimates, about 2 percent of Uzbek citizens get information from the Internet either by visiting websites or receiving print-outs from relatives and friends," Kislov said. "I should point out that the influence of Internet publications and the number of Internet users are growing because people seek news in the current information vacuum. Internet is also the most influential media among the elites."

Such reasoning suggests the impact of Internet coverage of religious-freedom issues is strong and influences elites both in the West and inside Central Asian.

"One of the longer term impacts, I think, of reporting from the outside on Central Asia is that it does raise awareness among policymakers and funding agencies and NGOs in other parts of the world," Freedman said. "So that if you were with the World Bank, for example, or the OSCE, or Committee to Protect Journalists, or another entity in the West, this is a way you get information. You may ultimately work that in as you make decisions on who to fund, who to loan money to. Individuals on the outside make pressure on their members of parliament or congress to do something. So there is the possibility that will generate some outside pressure."

Freedman stressed that media coverage raises the awareness of local citizens, including those working for government institutions. Such efforts to inform extend beyond the existing situation to include examples from the international community, he said. That could translate into long-term gains as young people form their opinions about issues like freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)

[Originally posted on March 14.] More rights organizations are expressing concern over last week's arrest of two Radio Liberty correspondents in Turkmenistan. There has been no information about Meret Khommadov and Jumadurdy Ovezov since Turkmen police took them on March 7. This week, rights organizations in Europe and the United States have taken up the matter and are calling for governments and international bodies to address the issue.

On March 14, it was the Moscow-based rights center Memorial that expressed concern about the arrest of the two RFE/RL correspondents.'

Vitaly Ponomaryov, the director of Memorial's program for monitoring human rights in Central Asia, recounted that Khommadov and Ovezov were arrested by police last week, that relatives of the two correspondents have not heard from them since then, and neither were being held at the regional police detention center.

Ponomaryov said that according to his organization's information, both were handed over to Turkmenistan's National Security Ministry, the successor of the Soviet-era KGB.

Ponomaryov said the two regularly reported on the social situation in Turkmenistan, about the decline of the educational system, and controversy over a recent decision to reduce the number of people receiving pensions.

"We think it is a very troubling situation and we believe they [Khommadov and Ovezov] should be allowed to continue their work, they should be released and it should be communicated why [the arrests] took place, because as far as we know [no one] has been informed about why these people were arrested," said Darla Orlova of the International Press Institute.

In a statement issued today, Amnesty International expressed concern that the two "have been held incommunicado since their arrest" and that they are "at risk of torture or ill-treatment." The organization said they are prisoners of conscience and noted that "Radio Liberty journalists have been deliberately targeted by the authorities in the past for their reporting."

Reports Without Borders (RSF) also issued a statement on March 14. The Paris-based group said "the complete absence of information about the reasons and circumstances of the arrest of these journalists is a perfect illustration of the lack of transparency in Turkmenistan." The group condemned such "repressive methods" and called for the journalists' immediate release.

On March 13, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights released a joint open letter. It said that "as the only remaining source of independent information in the country, RFE/RL journalists are regularly subjected to harassment by the authorities." The letter noted the arrests were not "isolated attacks on freedom of expression and journalists in Turkmenistan."

That same day, Rachel Denber, the acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, expressed her organization's apprehensions about the arrests.

"We are deeply, deeply concerned about the fate of the RFE/RL journalists who were arrested last week," Denber said. "We have no new information about what has happened to them and so our concern is, obviously, what their whereabouts are and how they are being treated in custody, and we would urge the Turkmen government, immediately, to make their whereabouts known and to release them immediately."

Denber echoed comments made in the letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

"Unfortunately, their arrest is just the latest example of the Turkmen government's complete intolerance of any independent voices in Turkmenistan."

The Turkmen government has been resistant to such complaints in the past. But the rights groups voicing concerns now hope they can enlist the aid of other organizations to apply pressure on the Turkmen government to at least provide some answers.

"We will send appeals to the [Turkmen] government and try to alert the international community about the situation of the correspondents in Turkmenistan to get international support behind [them]," Orlova said.

The letter from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to take up the matter. The letter noted that the OSCE "must address the lack of improvement of the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," as a participating state in the OSCE, and that the OSCE Permanent Council should include this issue on its agenda for discussion as soon as possible. (Bruce Pannier. Guvanch Geraev of the Turkmen Service also contributed to this report.)

[Originally posted on March 10.] The whereabouts of two RFE/RL correspondents remain unclear following their arrests by authorities in Turkmenistan and a subsequent lack of any contact with the men. The Turkmen government has been widely criticized for its failure to respect freedom of speech and human rights. The lack of an independent media in the country leaves those who try to report developments in a way that differs from the official version of events particularly vulnerable. So the absence of any news since police led the RFE/RL correspondents away earlier this week has journalists' rights groups concerned.

Family and colleagues of RFE/RL correspondents Meret Khommadov and Yumadurdy Ovezov have been unable to contact them since their arrests.

"At least two [RFE/RL correspondents] are arrested," said Aleksandr Narodetsky, director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It happened March 7, in the morning. They were arrested and taken to the local police, and then after several hours they were taken somewhere else. Their relatives, they tried to get an answer from local about the whereabouts of these two people and they didn't get any answer from [police]."

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has a history of hostility to independent media. Nearly 15 years after the country gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmen authorities have eradicated nearly all nonstate media.

Farid Tukhbatullin is an exiled human rights activist and director of the nongovernmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. He views the Turkmen authorities as hostile to RFE/RL, which broadcasts in Turkmen under the name Radio Azatlyk.

"Radio Azatlyk is considered an opposition radio station, and the government's policy is: Those who do not praise us are our enemies," Tukhbatullin says.

Oliver Money-Kyrle is the director of the projects division of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. He paints a grim picture of the media environment in Turkmenistan, even by Central Asia's lagging standards.

"It's certainly one of the most oppressive countries in the world in terms of freedom of expression, free media -- probably the most oppressive country in the region," Money-Kyrle says. "[Turkmenistan] is effectively a closed country for free media and independent journalism."

Turkmen Service Director Narodetsky says concerns have mounted since RFE/RL lost contact with all its correspondents in Turkmenistan 10 days ago.

"We cannot get [in touch with] any other correspondent in Turkmenistan because all the telephone lines with them are blocked -- and also the telephones lines of their relatives and some of their friends are blocked as well," Narodetsky says. "The information is zero about them."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement on March 9 in which it says it is "deeply alarmed" by the RFE/RL reporters' arrests.

The group calls RFE/RL "the only independent source of information in the country," adding that the situation leaves the population with no access to information other than state media.

Mukhammet Velsapar is a journalist whose writings got him in trouble with the Turkmen authorities. He eventually had to leave the country, but said from his new home outside Central Asia that it would be incorrect to say the RFE/RL correspondents had "disappeared."

"In Turkmenistan, no one can simply vanish. It isn't like Russia, a huge country where a lot cannot be controlled," Velsapar says. "In Turkmenistan, everything is under control. Without the approval of the authorities, no one can just disappear -- especially correspondents of Radio Liberty."

RFE/RL's acting president, Jeff Trimble, described the arrests in a company press release as "persecution, without even a pretext of legality," and "a blatant violation of media freedom and the human rights of these brave journalists." (Bruce Pannier)

As relations between the Uzbek government and the West worsened after 2003 and entered a deep freeze in 2005, foreign media outlets and organizations in Uzbekistan increasingly found themselves the targets of hostile official scrutiny. Western organizations working with Uzbek journalists were particularly hard hit. Now, new government rules seem to have been designed to close off the remaining avenues of independent cooperation between Uzbek journalists and what the government sees as undesirable outsiders.

Citing government harassment, the BBC's Uzbek Service closed its Tashkent bureau for six months in October 2005. The same month, Internews, a media-focused nongovernmental organization, lost its final appeal and shuttered its offices in Uzbekistan. RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau was stripped of its accreditation in mid-December 2005.

The three cases shared a common element. The BBC, Internews, and RFE/RL are foreign organizations that served to link not only Uzbek journalists and Uzbek news consumers, but also Uzbek journalists and the international community. More importantly, this link was not subject to the control of Uzbek authorities. When it was severed, an important avenue for independent communication between Uzbekistan and the outside world was lost.

The implication is that accredited foreign journalists should tread carefully in Uzbekistan, and Uzbeks who risk contact with foreign media that their government deems undesirable do so at their own peril.

But official efforts to ensure a controlled media environment in Uzbekistan did not end with the departure of those three organizations. On March 7, published the text of a February 24, 2006 cabinet resolution with new "basic rules regulating the professional activities of foreign media correspondents in Uzbekistan."

The new resolution replaces a September 11, 1998, resolution with the same title. The two are similar, but a side-by-side comparison of the texts reveals two important differences.

The first involves what accredited foreign correspondents are expressly forbidden to do. The relevant passage occurs in point 23 of the 1998 resolution and point 21 of the 2006 resolution.

1998 Resolution, Point 23

"Accredited foreign journalists are forbidden to promote war in any way, to lobby through their channels the positions or interests of extremist, criminal, or other illegal forces, movements, or individuals, [and] to speak out in favor of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred in a fashion constituting incitement to discrimination, animosity, or violence."

2006 Resolution, Point 21

"Accredited foreign correspondents are forbidden to call for the violent change of the existing constitutional system, the violation of Uzbekistan's territorial sovereignty by promoting war and violence, cruelty, ethnic, racial, and religious animosity. They are also forbidden to interfere in the internal affairs of Uzbekistan, to insult the honor and dignity of Uzbek citizens, to interfere in their personal [lives], or to perform other actions, responsibility for which is mandated by Uzbek law."

If the 1998 resolution forbids foreign correspondents from promoting violence, hate, and extremism, the 2006 resolution equates the promotion of "war and violence, cruelty, ethnic, racial, and religious animosity" with calls for "violent change" and "the violation of Uzbekistan's territorial sovereignty." Moreover, the 2006 resolution explicitly states that foreign correspondents cannot "interfere in the internal affairs of Uzbekistan," leaving undefined what such unwanted "interference" might constitute.

The new text also regulates interactions between foreign correspondents and Uzbek citizens, stating that foreign correspondents are forbidden "to insult the honor and dignity of Uzbek citizens, to interfere in their personal [lives]." Once again, the nature of the undesirable interference is left undefined.

The second key difference concerns Uzbek citizens' interactions with unaccredited foreign media. The 1998 resolution does not treat this issue, but the 2006 resolution states: "The professional activities of Uzbek citizens in the capacity of representatives of foreign media who/that have not received accreditation through the Uzbek Foreign Ministry are forbidden and entail liability under Uzbek law."

In other words, the new text stresses that it is illegal for any Uzbek citizen to perform "professional activities" for an unaccredited foreign media outlet, or for an unaccredited Uzbek citizen to perform "professional activities" for a foreign media outlet. The resolution does not define the meaning of either "professional activities" or "representative of foreign media."

Taken together, these two innovations in the 2006 resolution tighten control over the interactions between the foreign media and Uzbek citizens. The first sets up for accredited foreign correspondents a broad "no-go" category of undefined "interference" in Uzbek internal affairs and the private lives of Uzbek citizens. The second warns Uzbek citizens that if they engage in any form of "professional activities" as "representatives" of unaccredited foreign media, they are breaking the law.

The implication is that accredited foreign journalists should tread carefully in Uzbekistan, and Uzbeks who risk contact with foreign media that their government deems undesirable do so at their own peril. (Daniel Kimmage)