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'I Crossed Some Red Lines': What It's Like To Work As A Journalist In Central Asia

Manas Qaiyrtaiuly, a reporter for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, attempts to speak to a police officer in Almaty in June 2019.

For decades, Central Asian governments have kept a tight grip over information. State media dominate and serve as government mouthpieces rather than the public. The few independent outlets face growing financial pressures and efforts to stifle their reporting through a variety of means -- assaults, threats, arrests, and prosecution. Self-censorship is pervasive among journalists and bloggers.

Even in Kyrgyzstan, which boasts a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its neighbors, press freedom has been on the decline. Independent journalists have been detained or harassed by trolls on social media. The ongoing trial of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov on drug charges bears the signs of political persecution, according to his colleagues.

As social media increasingly becomes the main source of news for citizens -- especially young people -- the governments seek to gain more control over those outlets, too. Internet shutdowns and website blocking are widespread, particularly during anti-government protests.

Last year, Uzbekistan made “online insult and slander” of the president a crime. And Kazakhstan recently passed a law obliging foreign social media networks and messaging apps to register locally, or potentially be shut down.

In a live discussion on July 14, I spoke with Asem Zhapisheva, founder of Masa Media, an independent news website in Kazakhstan that covers human rights, and Nikita Makarenko, a freelance journalist from Uzbekistan, to talk about the tough decisions they have to make in difficult work conditions, the line between journalism and activism, and the future of journalism in their countries.

Key takeaways:

Nikita Makarenko (Uzbekistan): “Self-censorship is a question of survival because there is no one actually to protect us. I can't judge anyone, any colleague, who has to stay before the red line and not cross it. And yes, it was very tough for everyone to decide whether to post about the Karakalpakstan [protests] or not, because we've seen those who tried to post -- for example, Their stories were deleted and they were under pressure. Some of us have been directly told not to post about Karakalpakstan.

"Personally, I kept silent for two days, and I was feeling so bad because I love that region. I love its people. After two days, I started to post and felt a huge relief when I started to talk with people about them. I crossed some red lines. It's true. But no consequences so far. This is good.”

Asem Zhapisheva (Kazakhstan): “I'm not a journalist or a political activist. In the first place, I'm a citizen, and I'm a person who has rights and who wants for some changes to happen. So, as a citizen, I have my right to voice these concerns, and no one can take them from me.... If we look at history, all people who wanted changes were from very different backgrounds. There were doctors, there were workers, mine workers, teachers, students. So I see it as one of my responsibilities as a Kazakhstani citizen to make it better.

"And as it happens, I'm a journalist. And whenever I am at rallies, I never use my license. I never say that I'm a journalist. Whenever I'm detained, I never say that I'm a journalist. I always say that I'm just working. It doesn't matter where I work, or I don't use it as an excuse to avoid any kind of consequences because it would be unethical.”

Listen to the full conversation here:

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More on the subject from RFE/RL:

Majlis Podcast: Central Asia's Authorities Get Wise To New Media

Karakalpakstan In 'Information Vacuum' As Situation Stabilizes Following Deadly Unrest

'I Can't Handle Lies Anymore!' Kazakh Journalist Quits State TV, Citing Government Control

Uzbek Blogger Critical Of Government Gets Lengthy Prison Term

Inside Kyrgyzstan's Campaign To Silence Journalist Bolot Temirov

Kazakh Online Magazine Says Authorities Exerting Pressure Over Report On Rape Victim

Tajik Court Orders Two-Month Custody For Two Detained Bloggers

Media Watchdog Says Jailed Turkmen Journalist Subjected To Retaliation Over Coverage Of His Case, Calls For His Release

Follow @RFERL on Twitter so as not to miss our regular conversations on life and social change in Central Asia every Thursday at 3 p.m. in Prague/ 9 a.m. in Washington (7 p.m. local time in Bishkek/Almaty/Astana, and 6 p.m local time in Tashkent/Dushanbe/Ashgabat).

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    Bermet Talant

    Bermet Talant is a journalist from Kyrgyzstan who is currently based in Sydney. She previously worked as a political reporter for the Kyiv Post and completed a Reuters Institute fellowship at Oxford University. She has also written for The Guardian, the Lowy Institute, Eurasianet, openDemocracy, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.