Expression not free in Central Asia
Former Soviet republics' democratic reforms remain only promises

The Washington Times, 14 April 2001


Despite incremental progress since the breakup of the Soviet Union, freedom of expression remains a largely forbidden fruit in Central Asia.

On a Map of Freedom 2000 prepared by Freedom House, a Washington- based advocacy group that promotes political and economic freedom, Central Asia is awash in blue - the organization's color for "Not Free."

The sea of blue ink covering Kazakhstan , Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan has persisted on Freedom House's map since 1991 when the former Soviet republics gained independence within months of each other.

Despite promising democratic reforms, including free and open elections, and freedom of the press and expression, the countries have done little to implement them.

For example, it remains forbidden throughout the region to criticize the head of state. Many journalists practice self- censorship to avoid harassment by their governments, say independent observers.

Kazakhstan , Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain ruled by the same men who held power during Soviet control as heads of their nations' Communist parties. In Tajikistan, Rakhman Nabiyev, former Communist Party first secretary, won the nation's first presidential election in 1991, but he was ousted a year later by a coalition of the Islamic Renaissance Party and the Tajik Democratic Party. In 1994 presidential elections, the Communist Party regained its power, with Emomali Rakhmonov as a current Communist president. Only the Kyrgyz Republic is ruled by a non-Communist, physicist Askar Akayev, who was elected in 1991 and faces strong resistance from a Communist- dominated parliament.


"If they need to kill, they will kill," said Paul Goble with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "If they need to intimidate, they will do that. They use old Soviet mechanisms like libel and taxes. They are not perceived as censorship, but they achieve the same results." said Mr. Goble, who is a former State Department aide and a specialist on Soviet nationalities and has been monitoring the situation in Central Asia and the Caucasus for the past 30 years.

According to human rights and media organizations that monitor the region, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have the least independent press. In Uzbekistan, a 1991 law makes it illegal for anyone to offend "the honor and dignity of the president."

"There is a nearly exclusive control of the press by the government in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Lupis of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "Those countries administer long-term jail sentences of more than 10 years to journalists because of what they write."

An Uzbek Embassy spokesman denied the accusation, saying journalists were being arrested not for criticizing the government but for involvement in illegal organizations.

"Journalists were jailed not for journalistic work but because they belonged to Islamic terrorist organizations," said the spokesman. "We inherited the Soviet legacy, so free media are on the way, but it takes time."

"The government has a step-by-step plan to privatize mass media and give them back to people," he said. But he said that without starting capital, any Central Asian country would have little chance to build a strong, sustainable independent media.

Kyrgyzstan gets slightly better marks than Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.


"People talk freely in Kyrgyzstan," said Miss Hill, a specialist on Central Asia.

She said Kazakhstan developed an independent press soon after independence but that in recent years the president's family and cronies have taken it over and shut down several opposition papers.

According to an annual report by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, Kazakhstan 's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, "keep a tight rein over major media outlets."

"His daughter controls three television and two radio stations, and other family members reportedly have links to several media outlets," the report said.

Talgat Kaliev, first secretary of Kazakhstan Embassy, denied his government put any pressure on the media.

Human rights, media protection reports and local journalists disagreed. According to the International Center for Journalists, Almaty, the former capital city, had about 45 independent broadcast outlets and 11 major independent newspapers.

The report emphasized that despite a relatively high number of independent outlets, all broadcast transmission facilities were government-owned, which affected their content.

Until last month, Digeldin Gabdullin was editor in chief of one of Kazakhstan 's leading independent newspapers, 21st Century.

"On March 25, I got a letter that publishing of my publication was stopped," Mr. Gabdullin said in a telephone interview. "The letter was from a court in Almaty stating a violation of law of insulting the honor and dignity of the president."

"On Sept. 26, 1998, the office was fire-bombed. Before that, we started publishing investigative reports exposing corruption of the president," Mr. Gabdullin said. It went downhill from there.


In February, a criminal case opened charging Mr. Gabdullin with insulting the president's honor and dignity.

"I've been a subject of harassment for some time now," Mr. Gabdullin said. "I know my phones have been tapped, I was followed and now I face arrest charges. My family, other journalists from the paper and I cannot find jobs."

In Tajikistan, "Journalists, broadcasters and individual citizens who disagree with government policies are discouraged from speaking freely or critically," according to the State Department's Report on Human Rights in Tajikistan in 2000.

Forms of "discouragement" in the five republics vary. They may be long-term jail sentences, libel and defamation lawsuits, tax penalties, fines for "irregularities" and "friendly" advice not to repeat the mistakes in the future, said Emma Gray of CPJ, who is based in London and monitors Central Asia for the organization. She has visited the region several times, most recently in October.

"All the countries experience governmental harassment," Miss Gray said. "The most popular forms [used by authorities] are criminal defamation and bureaucratic manipulations."

In Kyrgyzstan, libel is a criminal, not a civil, offense. Miss Gray said the law is written vaguely enough that authorities can interpret it in many different ways. Thus, they may rate almost any uncomfortable remark about the government in the media as offensive and worthy of punishment.

One of the most acclaimed cases in Kyrgyzstan is a string of libel lawsuits against Res Publica, an independent newspaper.

"Kyrgyzstan is the first country of Central Asia which imprisoned a journalist - I was accused of defamation of the president and received a 11/2-year sentence," Res Publica's editor Zamira Sadykova said in a telephone interview.

For publishing a story implicating the president in a gold-mining scandal, Miss Sadykova spent three months in harsh conditions in a prison in 1997. She was released upon pressure from abroad.


In a 1998 libel lawsuit, the courts fined Res Publica $5,000.

"The only way for us to resume publication was to pay," said Miss Sadykova. "But how do you pay that much with an average monthly salary of $20?"

She paid with award money she received from the International Women's Media Foundation, based in Washington. Miss Sadykova won in the category "courage in journalism." These days, Res Publica publishes only when allowed to by government censors. Miss Sadykova said the last issue was held up for three weeks due to concerns about a collage of the president's family she wanted to put on the front page.

According to the State Department and the International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit media organization in Washington, several independent and opposition publications and broadcast stations ceased to exist or remained harassed by government authorities in Central Asia.

The Committee to Protect Journalists' "Attacks On The Press In 2000" report lists eight cases of legal action and harassment toward independent and opposition media in Kazakhstan , nine cases in Kyrgyzstan and one incident in Uzbekistan.

The region's weak economy contributes to the independent media's struggle, observers say.

All broadcast outlets in Central Asia have to pay big fees to get government licenses to operate. According to the International Center for Journalists' 2000 report on Kazakh media, television stations must pay an annual fee for frequency use as high as $200,000 to broadcast just in one city.

A fee for a radio frequency is $100,000. An average monthly wage in Kazakhstan last year was $95.14, according to State Department figures.

To get a broadcasting license in Tajikistan, an outlet must be approved by two governmental bodies, the Ministry of Communication and the State Committee on Radio and Television. In Uzbekistan, an interdependent governmental agency gives out licenses and may revoke them anytime without court procedures, says the State Department.

As a consequence of all the bureaucratic mechanisms and manipulations implemented by all Central Asian governments, journalists practice self-censorship.

"Journalists practice self-censorship because of real danger from mafia, which is a big problem in that region, or from government," said Miss Gray.

The Washington Times, 14 April 2001