Kazakhstan: Journalist's Traffic Death Recalls Past Tragedies
By Bruce Pannier
August 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saken Tauzhanov was a hard-hitting journalist who criticized both the opposition and the government in his native Kazakhstan.
His frequently caustic online articles made Tauzhanov more than a few enemies, which is why his death on August 2 raised many suspicions.
Skeptics are questioning the official account of Tauzhanov's death.
Kazakh authorities declared that when 37-year-old Tauzhanov was run over by a large truck as he crossed a street in downtown Almaty on August 2, it was a tragic but routine traffic accident.
No evidence has emerged to contradict such that account. But some people who have seen other Kazakh journalists die in the same manner are suspicious.
Other Traffic Deaths
Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Tauzhanov's death is not unique among journalists. She notes that seven other journalists have died under similar clouds of doubt.
"The cause of all these deaths is always some sort of [mishap involving a vehicle], according to the versions given by our law enforcement agencies," Taukina says. "But too often it is these traffic accidents that cause the deaths of journalists who oppose the authorities."
Taukina lists journalists who have been killed in traffic accidents since 2002, all but one of them struck by vehicles as they were walking on foot: "Starting with journalist Aleksei Pugaev (2002), who died in a car accident, he published the 'Eurasia' newspaper (2002); Nuri Muftakh (aka Moftak) (2002) was run over by a bus in the bus station parking lot; Askhat Sharipzhanov was hit by a car (2004); Yuri Baev in Uralsk, the chief editor of the newspaper 'Talap,' when he started to write reports about Kazakhgate (eds: an oil kickback scandal), he also was killed when he was struck by a car (2004); Batyrkhan Darimbet was killed in a car crash (2005), and we all know he was a former correspondent for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty and was head of the newspaper 'Azat.' Saken Tauzhanov, known for his recent articles that clearly opposed the authorities, was also hit by a vehicle. It seems like too many accidents involving vehicles."
Friends And Enemies
Tauzhanov's articles were published on the kub.kz online newspaper.
Gimran Ergaliev, a colleague at the same publication, notes that Tauzhanov had a blunt manner that could offend people.
"I worked together with Saken for one year," Ergaliev says. "He was the type of guy who was able to express his opinion candidly, in a straightforward kind of way. He was a real citizen; his articles were sharp and he was able to very skillfully raise the issues relevant to contemporary life. We are all in mourning."
Kazis Toguzbaev, another kub.kz reporter, agrees that Tauzhanov did not shy away from highlighting politicians' shortcomings, including the powerful long-time president.
"[Tauzhanov] hit out at everyone in his articles -- at officials in Nazarbaev's regime and at Nazarbaev himself."
Tauzhanov's last article for kub.kz was posted on July 28, five days before his death. It drew a comparison between President Nazarbaev's administration and the animated fairy-tale exploits of "Shrek." Tauzhanov criticized President Nazarbaev, the ruling Nur-Otan party that was founded to ensure Nazarbaev's reelection, and the upcoming early elections to parliament -- now less than two weeks away.
The troubling fates of some of Kazakhstan's most fearless reporters are not limited to traffic deaths.
Journalist Oralgaisha Omarshanova wrote for the Russian-Kazakh weekly newspaper "Law and Justice" until her disappearance on March 30. She went missing after her departure from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to pursue a story about clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and Chechens in southern Kazakhstan.
Four months later, family and friends are still desperately hoping for her return.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service director, Merhat Sharipzhan, contributed to this report)
Uzbekistan: Detained Journalist's Health Said To Worsen
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Jamshid Karimov (left) with Swedish journalist Elin Jonsson (center) and Uzbek journalist Ulugbek Khaidarov (file photo)
August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The friends and relatives of an imprisoned independent Uzbek journalist are worried about his ailing health and mental state.
Forty-year-old Jamshid Karimov, who worked for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), has been in psychiatric confinement in the central Uzbek city of Samarqand for nearly a year.
He is the son of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's elder brother, Arslan, who died in a car crash 18 years ago.
"Only one person decides the fate of Jamshid Karimov. That is President [Islam] Karimov."
Before his imprisonment, Karimov was an outspoken critic of his uncle and his government.
The journalist first disappeared in September 2006 after being under close government surveillance for months in his native town of Jizzah, some 100 kilometers from Samarqand. His family told RFE/RL at the time that authorities cut his long-distance and international phone connections and seized his passport in August 2006.
He left his home on September 12, 2006, to visit his mother at the hospital and disappeared only to be found in a psychiatric clinic nearly two weeks later.
In April 2007, his family learned that Karimov's detention was extended for a further six months, thus dashing hopes of a forthcoming release.
On July 30, the independent uznews.net quoted the journalist's friends as saying that Karimov's health has been deteriorating. They say he has been depressed and has suicidal thoughts. They add that his eyesight has worsened considerably while in the institution.
Afraid To Talk
Karimov's 71-year-old mother, Margarita, was contacted by RFE/RL today, but has refused to speak to the media. She did admit that she fears retaliation from the authorities. She also said her phone has been bugged. She has been able to visit her son and is the main source on his current condition.
Ulugbek Khaidarov is a friend and former colleague of Karimov. Speaking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from Kazakhstan, Khaidarov said he is concerned about Karimov's health.
"Jamshid's condition has worsened very much," he said. "I don't know if it is because of the medicine he's been given or something else. He does not see very well. He is not allowed to wear glasses while reading newspapers. His glasses are taken from him and given only at certain times of the day. I know Jamshid very well. He used to wear glasses but never complained about his sight. But now he cannot see very well. His condition is very bad. I got very upset when I heard about it."
Karimov's fate has attracted the attention of international organizations and foreign individuals.
NGOs Urge Release
The International PEN, an organization that defends freedom of expression, has called on Uzbek authorities to release the journalist, saying that Karimov has been held in detention with "no justification."
"Our concern is that the psychiatric detention is a means to punish Karimov, who has been writing and reporting quite extensively on human-rights issues. And we are concerned that this is the means to keep him quiet," said Sara Wyatt, a London-based program director of International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee.
Wyatt also said the organization discussed Karimov's plight as well as "severe abuses of freedom of expression" in Uzbekistan during the 73th PEN Congress held on July 4-11 in Dakar, Senegal.
Richard McKane, an English poet and a member of English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, has also expressed concern over Karimov's fate. McKane used verse to defend the journalist, held in a "psikhushka," or psychiatric clinic.
A Poem For Jamshid
"I wrote to you at this cafe before,
your isolation in psikhushka makes me cherish freedom all the more,
for it moves me to the very core -- it's your monstrous Uncle who is crushing you with his paw."
McKane said he hopes to attract Western governments' attention to the dire human-rights situation in Uzbekistan and some neighboring countries.
"What goes on in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan is, in fact, much closer to us than we know," he said. "I am trying to get across the fact that there are human rights [violations] in Uzbekistan. It's very important, and the West should realize that. The West should realize that those countries are not just oil and gas. They are people with souls."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says there are as many as five journalists imprisoned in Uzbekistan, including Karimov.
Yusuf Rasul, another Uzbek journalist who was forced to flee Uzbekistan after constant harassment, also knew Karimov personally.
Rasul says the fact that Karimov is a presidential nephew makes things worse for him. "Only one person decides the fate of Jamshid Karimov," he said. "That is President Karimov."
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondents Khurmat Babadjanov and Sadriddin Ashurov contributed to this report.)
Central Asia: Internet Influence Grows Despite Official Pressure
By Farangis Najibullah
Only for the rich? An Internet cafe in Ashgabat in March
July 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Every now and then, Central Asia's leaders break with official silence on the topic of the Internet to hint at its significance and pledge to improve public access to it.
And indeed, more city-dwellers are getting online all over the region, where Internet cafes have become a booming business and many schools and offices provide free connection to the World Wide Web.
But beneath the surface, the situation is arguably different: Internet cafes are subject to regular inspections by security officials, getting an Internet connection at home requires authorization, and independent news, civil-society, and opposition websites are blocked.
When the Tajik parliament introduced recent legislation criminalizing libel and other forms of defamation on the Internet, some media rights groups criticized the bill as an effort to hinder the free flow of information.
ISPs In Tow
Article 19, a London-based group that campaigns for freedom of speech worldwide, argued that no other country in the world includes such a specific provision for Internet postings.
Nuriddin Qarshiboev, who heads the National Association for Independent Media in Tajikistan, accuses the Tajik government -- which has a history of strictures on independent media -- of trying to extend its grip over online media.
"Since the Tajik governmental authorities are unable to close down an Internet website, they are now trying to restrict Internet freedom through technical means -- and they want Internet [service] providers to help them in dealing with the issue," Qarshiboev says.
Tajik authorities have blocked a number of antigovernment news websites in the past.
Tajikistan and other post-Soviet governments in Central Asia -- particularly Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- employ a range of methods to restrict public access to the Internet.
"[Authorities] check us regularly. Inspections take place here." -- Internet cafe owner in Tashkent
In Uzbekistan, most Internet service providers (ISPs) operate under government control. They have blocked opposition and rights groups' websites, as well as regional and international news sources that cover events in Uzbekistan. Websites like centrasia.ru, fergana.ru, and RFE/RL and BBC news sites have been "filtered" to prevent Uzbeks from seeing them.
An Internet cafe owner in Tashkent, who did not want to give his name, tells RFE/RL that officials regularly come to his cafe to monitor which websites customers are using.
"Yes, they check us regularly. Inspections take place here," he says. "There is an information inspection body that operates under [national telecommunications operator] Uzbektelecom. They usually come in and check us."
He adds that many Internet cafe owners are required to put up signs warning that "access to pornographic and political websites is prohibited."
Mahina, a 21-year-old student in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, says she goes to Internet cafes to read up on the news that is otherwise unavailable.
"Mostly, I read Radio Ozodi [RFE/RL's Tajik Service] and BBC news websites in Tajik, as well as Asia-Plus, Varorud, and avesto.tj news agencies," Mahina says. "I look for news that we can't find on Tajik television."
Mahina says she must surf through those web pages "as quickly as possible" because of the high price of the connection for students like her.
Surfing In Uzbekistan
Apart from what are officially regarded as "pornographic and political" sites -- a catchall that is used to block non-state news outlets -- the Internet is expanding in Uzbekistan.
The number of Uzbek ISPs has grown from 25 in 1999 to 539, according to the latest available figures, from 2005, according to Open Net Initiative. Still, official Uzbek statistics suggest that just 1.2 million of the country's 27 million people has access to the Internet.
There are increasingly Internet cafes offering inexpensive connections to the net. The Tashkent Internet cafe owner we quoted earlier says the going rate -- equivalent to about $0.50 per hour -- is affordable for many Uzbeks.
Same Old Turkmenistan?
In Turkmenistan, it is a different story. The late strongman president, Saparmurat Niyazov, kept his impoverished public as hermetically sealed as possible. No Internet connections at home -- with even the handful of people who received official permission for it in the 1990s later banned from using the web.
The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, famously vowed to open the Internet up to his people.
But even under his tentative reforms, the cost of using the Internet is prohibitively high. In a country with an average salary of about $70 per month, the several Internet cafes that have opened charge around $4 per hour.
When he officially succeeded Niyazov in February, Berdymukhammedov pledged an immediate improvement in access to the Internet: "Starting from today, Internet cafes will be opened in Ashgabat and other cities. We are working on a program that gives every school and university access to the Internet."
Six months on, there appear to have been few changes. All opposition, human rights, and independent news websites are still blocked by the authorities. All ISPs are said to be closely controlled by the government.
Getting authorization for a household Internet connection is out of reach for most, with thorough checks by the National Security Ministry.
In Tajikistan, officials put the number of active Internet users at an improbably high 500,000, which would represent one in 12 citizens.
Tajikistan's unreliable electricity supplies present a major challenge for would-be web users, with power available in many places limited to a few early-morning and late-evening hours.
The same problem exists in many provinces of neighboring Uzbekistan.
While there is Internet growth all over Central Asia, the number of the net users still remains low relative to more developed places.
Out Of Reach
Only a tiny minority of people in Central Asia -- mostly urbanites -- have home computers. Where possible, those others access the Internet in offices or cafes, schools or universities. Some international organizations, like the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have opened special press centers in the region where journalists get free Internet access. In several Turkmen cities, U.S. cultural centers offer free Web connections.
More recently, the Internet is reaching some remote areas, too. But in the most Central Asian villages, the Internet is practically nonexistent.
Internet cafes are gaining popularity primarily in cities and on the outskirts of capitals.
Owners say that Internet cafe customers are mostly teenagers, usually playing online games or chatting on the web. Some come to use e-mail.
(RFE/RL's Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)
Iran: Proxy Battle To Counter Internet 'Filtering'
By Niusha Boghrati
Filtered cafe (file photo)
July 24, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- It is among the most familiar phrases to the roughly 8 million-11 million web surfers in Iran, the second-largest Internet user in the Middle East behind Israel.
"You Are Not Authorized To View This Page!"
More than 10 million websites are currently being "filtered" in Iran, according to the state Information Technology Company.
The range of blocked websites includes a handful of pornographic, political, or human rights-related addresses and even some forum websites.
At a time when the country suffers from what human rights defenders describe as a severe "information crackdown," a group of young Iranians inside the country is determined to battle the dominant policy of online censorship imposed by the Iranian leadership.
The group Iran Proxy is formed by some Iranian youngsters who believe that this "new dictatorial barrier" must be fought from inside of the country -- and that they must remain underground to be able to do so.
Iran Proxy describes itself as the first anti-filtering group inside Iran. It says it is focused on introducing and promoting simple -- and yet technologically advanced -- ways of helping Iranian users skirt web filters.
"Iran Proxy tries to teach to the Iranian users the advanced methods of getting around this new dictatorial barrier, which is the result of false policies of governments and religious extremists, in a simplified and understandable way through publication of a series of articles, one of the underground group's members tells Radio Farda on condition of anonymity. "We also plan to introduce the new anti-filter software and proxies to users."
Iran Proxy has so far created tens of proxy websites with search ability and also featuring fixed links to news websites that are currently being blocked by the Iranian government. The proxies, which get updated constantly and can be e-mailed to users, help surfers to enter the restricted pages.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran's press situation as "very serious," the worst ranking on the nongovernmental group's five-point scale. Iran's Internet censorship policy is described as "pervasive" by the OpenNet Initiative's global Internet-filtering map, the worst ranking it assigns to countries.
"According to the results of the worldwide research carried out between the years 2004 and 2005 by the OpenNet Initiative, Iran was filtering around 30 percent of the target websites," Iran Proxy tells Radio Farda. "The results revealed that Iran was practicing one of the strictest methods of Internet filtering."
The filtering in Iran primarily focuses on Persian-language websites, including numerous weblogs. In recent years and under circumstances in which writers, activists, and others complained of the absence of a free speech platform in the country, the phenomenon of blogging quickly found a place among the growing number of Iranian web surfers.
Rising Demand Meets With Official Intolerance
Weblogs rapidly earned a reputation as an electronic replacement that featured two basic and necessary characteristics of the desired political and social platforms for Iranians: capability to interact and security. The popularity of the platform reached a point that -- with around 700,000 enthusiast writers -- Persian language has become the fourth most-blogged language on the Internet.
But tolerance for the new phenomenon did not last long.
"As for the Persian websites, the blocked-pages figure totals something above 50 percent."
Shahram Rafizadeh, Sina Motallebi, Arash Sigarchi, Mojtaba Sami Nejad, Ruzbeh Mir Ebrahimi and Omid Memarian were among the journalists and bloggers who were arrested and prosecuted for their online writings. Along with the suppression, limitations were imposed on accessing websites, most of which included Persian news and analytical websites and weblogs.
"The statistics provided by OpenNet's research back in 2004 and 2005 showed that around 5 percent of English news websites were blocked at the time," an Iran Proxy member says. "As for the Persian websites, the blocked-pages figure totals something above 50 percent. Access to 100 percent of the pornographic websites and 95 percent of the proxy websites are restricted, too. This, of course, [was the case] three years ago."
Many Iranian officials have strongly defended the concept of "having control over the Internet" by highlighting what they described as the "necessity of preventing the access to pornographic sources." That point, which might win the support of concerned parents, later got overshadowed by features of the later versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system that provide its users with a chance to arrange their own restrictions and basically rule out the need for any external monitoring.
However, the new facilities to block pornography do not appear to have had much impact on Tehran's determination to keep -- and even broaden -- its surveillance over the use of the World Wide Web.
"In recent months, the Iranian state-run telecommunications center has begun the launch of an entirely new filtering system that includes a software robot able to observe viewed web pages and block them after drawing a comparison with the defined algorithms," Iran Proxy tells Radio Farda. "The new supervision system has got additional features that add to the country's filtering ability," the source adds. "The ability to block pages that link to filtered websites is one of the features of the new method that is currently being applied. Given these facts, if OpenNet repeats the research now, it will encounter blocking results so much higher that they might even be unimaginable."
In one of its latest unexpected policy actions, Iran's Internet service providers (ISPs) have been banned since late 2006 from providing Internet connections faster than 128 kilobytes per second (kbps) to homes and cafes. It is a move that critics regard as part of a media clampdown.
Experts believe that the decision is much broader in scope than the previous policy of suppression. It can also be considered among the first times that the Iranian government has openly denied its people access to "technology" in favor of censorship.
Human rights groups accuse Iran of launching an accelerating crackdown on information sources, including the Internet, in an effort to silence critics. They charge that the process has intensified since Mahmud Ahmadinejad became Iran's president two years ago.
Tehran denies the charges.
(with contributions by Radio Farda's online staff)