Two media monitoring groups have singled out Central Asia as having one of the most hostile working environments for journalists in the world. Media observers also noted that journalists in the Caucasus countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced an increasing level of harassment in recent months.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) both cited Turkmenistan as Central Asia's most repressive nation, where the totalitarian system built by Turkmen leader Saparmarat Niyazov has stifled free speech. "The regime controlled all written and broadcast media and also did everything it could to block news from the outside world by banning foreign newspapers and blocking access to Internet websites," Reporters Without Borders said in its 2004 Annual Report, which was issued May 3 to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.
Meanwhile, CPJ detailed Turkmen government persecution of freelance journalists working for US government-financed Radio Free Euope/Radio Liberty, one of the few independent media outlets that operates in Turkmenistan. "In September 2003, National Security Service agents detained a RFE/RL stringer in the capital Ashgabat for two days, threatened him with 20 years in prison for betraying his country, and injected him multiple times with an unknown substance," CPJ said in a May 3 statement. The group added that Turkmen authorities arrested two RFE/RL freelancers in February 2004 after one was caught attempting to smuggle 800 copies of his banned novel. The freelancers are face charges of inciting social, ethnic and religious hatred.
Media watchers say Uzbekistan, which was the scene of militant attacks in late March, also tightly controls the press. "Censorship was officially abolished in 2002, but the media was still being censored in 2003 and no criticism of President Islam Karimov and his policies was allowed," the RWB Annual Report said. Uzbek media coverage of the recent violence in Tashkent and Bukhara underscored the government's heavy-handed control of free speech. State-run media largely avoided coverage of the attacks, while Uzbek officials castigated those foreign media outlets and independent journalists who challenged the official view of events. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In public comments May 2, Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, offered a scathing assessment of Uzbekistan's media conditions. Murray assailed the government for its censorship practices, and criticized journalists for being "tame and useless" and for not working harder to overcome official restrictions.
"It is not that journalists cannot do their job, it is that they will not do their job. It is time they start it," Murray said. "Uzbek journalists are rather parasitical people who do not publish any truth, don't seek the truth, don't try to publish it and really they are a disgrace to their profession."
Press conditions are comparatively better in other Central Asian states. Yet the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have all taken action to restrict independent media, RWB said.
In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently drew praise for refusing to sign a restrictive media bill into law. At the same time, media rights groups remain critical of the Kazakhstani government for its harassment of prominent opposition journalists, in particular Sergei Duvanov.
According to RWB, Kyrgyzstan damaged its reputation for having Central Asia's freest media by approving constitutional amendments in early 2003 that impose "further curbs on press freedom." The RWB Annual Report also criticized the Kyrgyz government for forcing Maya Stolitsa, a leading opposition newspaper, out of business. On the positive side, the report expressed hope that a new US-financed printing press would facilitate the publication of independent newspapers and periodicals.
In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmonov recently proposed substantial tax breaks to stimulate print media development. However, Tajik broadcast outlets, which enjoy far greater audiences than do newspapers and periodicals, would not be eligible for the tax breaks. Despite Rahmonov's recent support for press independence, the RWB report said the Tajik government "continued their extensive harassment of independent newspapers and refused to issue operating licenses to privately-owned TV and radio stations…"
Eurasianet, May 04, 2004