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Media Matters: May 12, 2004

12 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 9

The next issue of "RFE/RL Media Matters" will appear on 4 June.
By Breffni O'Rourke

Central Asia is singled out as one of the worst regions for abuse of media freedoms, in a report just issued by the Paris-based media monitoring organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The report was issued to mark International Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

RSF regional specialist Caroline Giraud says conditions are bad for working journalists right across the Central Asian region, but that in some countries -- namely Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- they are at their worst.

Giraud told RFE/RL that journalists are subject to a wide range of pressures throughout Central Asia. In addition to outright physical threats and intimidation, the authorities use more subtle pressures. These include harassment of individuals and organizations on various legal grounds, including for even minor administrative infringements.

All this creates an atmosphere that is difficult for media workers to cope with. "What is not evident, and what is the biggest problem in this area, is self-censorship," Giraud said. "Journalists really [are afraid] to deal with some issues such as corruption of officials, and those who do get personally targeted, or their media gets targeted, so this is a really big problem which is difficult to fight against."

RSF says international pressure is very important to help improve the situation and that Western countries with economic interests in Central Asia should use their financial involvement as a lever. Giraud mentioned the European Union and the United States, which are believed to have exerted pressure on the Kazakh authorities last year in the case of jailed journalist Sergei Duvanov. Duvanov was conditionally released from prison early this year.

In another case in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev eventually rejected a restrictive new media law that had been heavily criticized by international organizations and foreign governments.

Turning to the individual countries of the Central Asia region, Giraud said Turkmenistan, under President Saparmurat Niyazov, is the most repressive of the former Soviet republics. "The worst situation is in Turkmenistan, where there is absolutely no press freedom anywhere. It is very difficult for journalists to work at all," she said.

The RSF report says that the Turkmen government controls both television and print media, and foreign periodicals are banned from distribution, In addition, defaming or insulting the president is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

The second-worst republic in terms of press freedom, according to RSF, is Uzbekistan. "Formally, censorship was abolished [in Uzbekistan] two years ago, but it is still applied in reality, and we have seen during this past year some worsening of the situation," Giraud said. "[We note in the report that] a journalist and human rights defender, Ruslan Sharipov, has been jailed, and we consider that jailing him was a way to hamper his work." Sharipov was arrested and convicted of homosexuality after a closed trial.

Kazakhstan has the best-developed private press in Central Asia, but many of the organizations are owned by people close to President Nazarbaev, calling their independence into question.

Media in Tajikistan, meanwhile, have had a hard time developing following the country's devastating 1993-97 civil war. Giraud said the government does not help the media, and has been refusing broadcasting licenses to radio and television stations for years. "The biggest problem in Tajikistan," she added, "is that almost 30 journalists were killed during the civil war, and very few cases have been solved. There is a great amount of intimidation in this country."

At the better end of the scale is Kyrgyzstan, which has had the reputation of the "good student" in Central Asia. But even there, there has been a deterioration in the past year, according to RSF. Juridical harassment of oppositional and independent newspapers is widespread, and in some cases has forced the closure of newspapers. Typically, the pressure would take the form of court cases brought by officials on grounds of defamation or insult.

The situation in Kyrgyzstan is illustrated by an open letter sent on 30 April by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights to the Kyrgyz interior minister and prosecutor-general. The letter notes that the son of Zamira Sydykova, the editor of the newspaper "Respublika," was badly beaten in Bishkek last month by a gang of men.

The Helsinki Federation says Sydykova believes the attack was deliberately staged because of recent articles in "Respublika" criticizing corruption among Interior Ministry officials.

Breffni O'Rourke is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.

By Daniel Kimmage

Tajikistan's media environment suffers from an unfortunate confluence of subjective and objective constraints. Subjectively, the state has a wide array of instruments -- from ambiguously worded libel legislation to licensing regulations to a near-monopoly on printing presses -- to ensure that officially endorsed points of view predominate. Objectively, rugged terrain hampers national distribution of all forms of media, the country's infrastructure has yet to recover from the devastating effects of the 1992-97 civil war, and the population's impoverishment has rendered even the regular purchase of newspapers too expensive for all but a select few.

Tajikistan shared 113th place with Azerbaijan on the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' October 2003 world press-freedom ranking of 166 countries. Within Central Asia, Tajikistan fared significantly better than Turkmenistan (158th place) and Uzbekistan (154th place), and fell roughly in between Kazakhstan (138th place) and Kyrgyzstan (104th place). Globally, the particular combination of subjective and objective obstacles that characterizes Tajikistan's media environment is most closely replicated in other countries with traumatic recent pasts, tenuous economies, and meddlesome officials such as Rwanda and Lebanon.

As in other spheres of Tajik life, the civil war continues to cast a shadow over the media. The IREX 2002 Media Sustainability Index noted: "During the period before the civil war, the media became an instrument of the competing parties. In the opinion of most journalists in Tajikistan, media were at least partially responsible for the antagonism that was perpetuated before the war." It is in this light that parallels emerge with seemingly disparate countries like Rwanda, where a radio station incited genocide, and Lebanon, where each faction in that country's brutal civil war maintained its own newspaper as a mouthpiece. In Tajikistan, nearly 80 journalists perished during the turbulent 1990s. Today, this makes for a mixed legacy -- journalists are profoundly aware of the dangers of incitement to conflict, but they are also vulnerable to charges from critics, who may not always speak with the best of intentions, that critical or controversial articles are evidence of a return to the irresponsible demagoguery that fueled the civil war.

Although Tajikistan boasts an impressive number of newspapers, they labor under the same constraints that afflict other media -- official interference and scant resources. While censorship is officially illegal, independent journalists often have difficulty obtaining accurate information from officials, and journalists who incur official displeasure face harassment. Moreover, the state-owned Sharqi Ozod printing press maintains a virtual monopoly, allowing the state to exercise de facto censorship by preventing the appearance in print of materials not to its liking. At various points during 2003, for example, Sharqi Ozod refused to print the independent newspapers "Nerui Sukhan" and "Ruzi Nav" when they carried materials critical of the government and president.

Penury creates a host of other problems. Low salaries offer little incentive to join the profession, and impoverished journalists are especially susceptible to payments offered in exchange for articles written to order. Needless to say, such articles further diminish the status of the profession in the public eye. Few members of the reading public have the means to buy newspapers on a daily basis. As a result, newspapers tend to come out once a week, with only a few papers appearing more frequently. Even state-owned "Jumhuriyat" is published only three times a week. A lack of tax breaks for media exacerbates the already tight financial situation of many newspapers. Independent media often rely on foreign grants for financial support.

Government-owned newspapers include "Jumhuriyat" (in Tajik), "Sadoi Mardum" (in Tajik), "Khalq Ovozi" (in Uzbek), and "Narodnaya gazeta" (in Russian). "Asia Plus," "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," "Varorud," and "Vechernii Dushanbe" are well-known independent newspapers. Only "Asia Plus" maintains a website, which features materials in Russian and English from the affiliated Asia Plus-Blitz news agency ( Two former journalists, Akbaraly Sattor and Sharif Hamdamov, have become independent media magnates with offerings that tend toward the tabloid end of the spectrum. The major political parties also publish newspapers, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party's "Najot" and the Communist Party's "Nidoi Ranjbar."

Dodojon Atoulloev's "Charoghi Ruz" is an opposition newspaper published in Russia. According to its website (, it bills itself as a "newspaper in exile." It appears very infrequently, with only two issues appearing in 2003. The last issue, which appeared in early 2004, contained numerous reprints from the Russian press and a few materials in Tajik. Most of the articles in "Charoghi Ruz" express bitter opposition to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov.

State-run Tajik Television is the only national station. Its reception extends to 70 or 80 percent of the country. A throwback to the Soviet period, it alternates officious news broadcasts with folkloric programming and entertainment rebroadcasts from other networks. In January 2004, Rakhmonov appointed a new head of the State Television and Radio Committee, and plans for a second national state television station appear to be in the offing.

A number of local stations, some of them privately owned, exist in Dushanbe and Khujand. Somonion TV in Dushanbe is Iranian-funded. Most of the northern Viloyati Sughd, home to many Uzbek speakers, can receive state television from neighboring Uzbekistan. Most local stations have little money for original programming and broadcast for only a few hours a day. At least one company in Dushanbe, TV-Servis, offers a cable package with 12 channels, but at a price that few can afford. Satellite systems, while available, are even more prohibitively priced.

State-run Radio 1 and 2 broadcast nationwide, although radio ownership is relatively limited in many areas and electrical power is often intermittent in isolated regions. Independent FM stations include Asia Plus in Dushanbe and Radio Tiroz in Khujand.

Although the Internet could conceivably provide a low-cost alternative to traditional media, its initial development faces formidable infrastructure inadequacies, geographic barriers, and capital shortfalls. According to at least one source, Tajikistan has the lowest per-capita telephone service of any former Soviet state. The country's mountainous terrain hampers the reconstruction and expansion of the communications infrastructure. Still, at least four Internet service providers currently exist in Dushanbe. Although some news agencies maintain consistently updated websites, few Tajik media are available on the Internet.

To a greater extent than in more-developed countries, the overall economic situation will continue to determine the extent to which the media environment can improve. While independent media show some signs of strengthening, their potential is circumscribed by infrastructure weaknesses and limited consumer purchasing power. Political considerations are an equally important factor, and the politicization of media will likely increase in the run-up to 2005 parliamentary elections, with attendant efforts to exert control and influence. If Rakhmonov, who could theoretically remain president until 2020, succeeds in further consolidating his power, he may try to move Tajikistan closer to the Uzbek model of a tightly controlled press that serves the interests of the ruling elite and almost entirely neglects the media's putative goal of providing accurate information and analysis. This is not a foregone conclusion, however, and incremental improvements in the media environment remain possible at present.

By Daniel Kimmage

Turkmenistan in 2004 remains a country with one of the world's most hostile media environments. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkmenistan 158th out of 166 countries surveyed in its second world press-freedom ranking, released on 20 October 2003. The report described Turkmenistan and other "bottom 10" countries as places where "independent news media are either nonexistent...or are constantly repressed by the authorities. Journalists there work in extremely difficult conditions, with no freedom and no security."

Within the regional context of Central Asia, Turkmenistan's media enjoy the smallest degree of freedom. Even Uzbekistan's tightly controlled press is freer, to say nothing of the comparatively vibrant debates found in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Closer parallels with Turkmenistan are evident in other countries relegated by RSF to the bottom of the press freedom ranking, including North Korea, Burma, Laos, and China.

The media situation in Turkmenistan is both a reflection of the country's political system and one of its props. In a 1 January 2004 article in "World Affairs," Stephen Blank wrote that "Turkmenistan has deteriorated to a tragic and yet farcical restaging of Stalinism's worst excesses, representing almost a paradigm, if not a caricature, of Weber's category of sultanism."

In this environment, with its enforced worship of "Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great" and a total absence of democratic institutions, the media are called upon both to form the population's views by reinforcing the leader's cult of personality and to deform them by blocking out any information or opinions that could contradict official ideology. What the media are not allowed to do under any circumstances is to provide objective, accurate information or a plurality of views.

According to the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report on Turkmenistan, 22 newspapers are published in Turkmen and one in Russian. The two leading national newspapers are "Turkemistan" (in Turkmen) and "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" (in Russian). Niyazov himself appoints editors, who are subject to a six-month probation period. Newspapers carry a loyalty oath to the president on their mastheads and devote the bulk of their coverage to his exploits. The president's press office, the state news agency, and other state institutions are the primary source for news. Foreign newspapers are virtually unobtainable.

Like virtually all print media, newspapers are owned by the state and printed by state-owned presses. Censorship operates through a three-level system: a committee to protect state secrets, editors, and the self-censorship of journalists who know that one misstep can cost them their careers and, perhaps, their liberty.

Turkmenistan's three television channels -- Altyn Asyr (Golden Age), Miras (Heritage), and Yashlyk (Youth) -- all sport a silhouette of the literally omnipresent president in the corner of the screen. Coverage focuses heavily on Niyazov, including lengthy speeches and cabinet meetings. Other programming consists of patriotic music and inoffensive rebroadcasts from Russia's state-run ORT. All programming is in Turkmen save a 10-minute daily newscast in Russian. Personnel policy and censorship replicate the situation in print media. Satellite and cable systems were outlawed in April 2003, leaving official Turkmen channels the only source of television entertainment and news. Although we have no information on numbers of viewers or ratings, Niyazov's occasional grumbling that officials should produce livelier fare could indicate that he is aware of some dissatisfaction with current programming.

According to official reports, Turkmenistan is in the process of creating a fourth television channel to broadcast in several foreign languages. Several contracts have apparently been awarded to foreign firms to provide technical support, but it remains unclear when and if the channel will actually begin broadcasting.

The "confession" of Boris Shikhmuradov, broadcast in January 2003, provides a vivid illustration of Turkmen television's political functions. Appearing drugged and disoriented, the former Turkmen prime minister confessed on videotape to masterminding a plot to kill Niyazov in November 2002. Turkmen television aired footage of a packed congress hall watching Shikhmuradov's confession on a large screen, while voices from the hall rang out calling for his death. Freimat Duve, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, denounced the broadcasts in a 16 January 2003 statement, saying: "These are the same methods that were used during the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. The rhetoric used is often obscene and in most countries would be unprintable."

Official radio broadcasts feature a heavy diet of songs about Niyazov. Two foreign radio stations broadcast in Turkmen -- Iran's Radio Gorgan and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Russia's state-run Mayak (in Russian) can also be received.

Turkmentelecom, the country's only Internet service provider, stopped serving private customers in April 2003, according to reports in Russia's "Izvestiya" and the Turkmen opposition site Nevertheless, a number of Internet resources exist in Turkmen.

RFE/RL correspondents attempting to work in Turkmenistan have endured extreme harassment. RFE/RL correspondent Saparmurat Ovezberdiyev was abducted by agents of the National Security Ministry and threatened in September and November 2003. In 2004, correspondents Rakhim Esenov and Ashyrguly Bayryev were arrested, but they were later released after an international outcry.

Turkmenistan appears destined to continue its progress toward the bottom of all international rankings of press freedom. Nothing would appear to indicate that any loosening of control over the media is in the offing.