Participants at an annual gathering of Kazakhstan’s journalist community have called for authorities to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the media.
Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov took the floor after a panel discussion in Almaty on November 27 to demand an end to what he described as de facto “censorship” and for dissident voices to be given access to the mainstream media. Kazakhstan’s opposition has long been marginalized from the media, and the situation has deteriorated since the courts last year closed down dozens of independent media outlets in the wake of late 2011's fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan.
The panel discussion at the sixth Media Kuryltay (“council” or “assembly”) pitted a government official against a prominent journalist who survived an assassination attempt that many observers suspect was linked to his outspoken reporting. The kuryltay offers a rare opportunity for an exchange of opinions between journalists reflecting all sides of Kazakhstan’s media spectrum – from strongly pro-government to staunch opposition – and bureaucrats from Astana.
Bolat Kalyanbekov, chairman of the Ministry of Culture’s Information and Archive Committee, offered a spirited defense of state media policy, pointing out that the government channels millions of tenge to the media every year. Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the regional Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in northwestern Kazakhstan, who was lucky to survive a vicious attempt on his life last year, pointed out that the state might be throwing money at loyal elements of the media but this did not bring about greater media freedom.
Critical websites that have been blocked in Uzbekistan for years reportedly became accessible within the country in recent weeks. But sources tell EurasiaNet.org they are blocked again.
On October 27, Moscow-based Fergana News reported that from October 17 users in Namangan, Tashkent and Fergana could "freely access" Fergananews.com and other sites that frequently carry material critical of the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov.
Sources in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org on October 28, however, that the sites, including EurasiaNet.org, are again blocked. (They can be accessed using proxy servers.) Uzmetronom also reports that the sites are again inaccessible from within Uzbekistan.
State media regularly warns about the supposedly harmful effects foreign media, culture, and social-networking websites have on young people, especially since the Arab Spring saw similar dictatorships toppled in the Middle East. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranksUzbekistan an "Enemy of the Internet."
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
An independent journalist missing for three days in Uzbekistan has been jailed on what human rights activists are calling politically motivated charges.
Sergei Naumov disappeared in the western city of Urgench on September 21 after telling friends he had been having trouble with local police. Given Uzbekistan’s record of forcibly silencing critics, and Naumov’s reporting on the use of forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, his friends feared the worst.
Nadejda Atayeva, France-based leader of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, wrote on her blog on September 24 that Naumov had been located in a detention center in Urgench after the city court found him guilty of "petty hooliganism" and sentenced him to 12 days after a remarkably speedy trial on September 21.
Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Uzbek human rights activists expressed alarm about Naumov’s disappearance. “The brutal practice of ‘disappearing’ government critics is a terrible blight on Uzbekistan’s already abysmal human rights record,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 24 statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Tashkent to “scrap the fabricated charges."
Human Rights Watch has called on authorities in Kazakhstan to investigate "swiftly and effectively" an attack on a critical journalist in the western city of Aktobe.
Igor Larra, a correspondent with the Svoboda Slova newspaper, suffered a head injury and bruises on his body when four unidentified men attacked him with a crowbar on August 20, the Almaty-based Adil Soz foundation for the protection of freedom of speech said on August 21.
The journalist linked the attack to a number of critical articles he has written about the governor of Aktobe Region, Arkhimed Mukhambetov, Adil Soz said.
Adil Soz says Larra was also attacked in March 2010 for what it believes was his coverage of an oil workers' strike in the town of Zhanaozen and other problems in Kazakhstan's oil and gas sector.
“A critical journalist who has been attacked before has been hit over the head with a crowbar,” said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This follows a pattern in Kazakhstan. The authorities need to get to the bottom of what happened to Igor Larra, including whether it was related to his work.”
A website that many Central Asia watchers have long believed airs leaks from Uzbekistan’s security services is taking a break after Uzbek authorities criticized its coverage of a border skirmish this week.
On July 25, Sergey Yezhkov, editor of Uzmetronom.com, said he would suspend the website indefinitely. Though Uzbekistan is one of the world’s worst countries for journalists, he expressed surprise that authorities would silence those who “utter any word which is out of tune with official propaganda.”
“We don’t understand whether it is a short-term hysteria caused by some momentary undercurrents, or a long-term program with full consequences,” Yezhkov wrote in an editorial. He also denied that the website – which proudly brands itself “blocked in Uzbekistan,” yet has operated from there since 2006 – is “close to the Uzbek security services.”
He tried to explain away this widespread belief: “[W]e did not even try to argue, although we never were ‘close.’ At least, we were not closer than others [...] unfiltered information coming from within the country is always preferable to what is produced outside.”
Moscow-based Fergana News said that Uzmetronom came under fire after publishing a report on a July 23 skirmish on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border that left two dead. Uzmetronom received a letter on July 24 from the Military Prosecutor’s Office warning against covering the clash “without receiving accurate information on this incident from relevant bodies,” Fergana News quoted the letter as saying. The letter added that such reporting could destabilize the situation on the border.
It’s been another bad week for critics of Tajikistan’s long-serving strongman, Emomali Rahmon.
On July 18, police announced they had found a body appearing to be that of Salim Shamsiddinov, the missing leader of the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, downstream in Uzbekistan. Shamsiddinov, 58, vanished without a trace during a regular morning run in his hometown of Qurghonteppa on March 16. A consistent critic of Dushanbe’s policies towards its one-million-plus Uzbek community, many, including Amnesty International, suspected his disappearance was related to his political activities. Shamsiddinov had previously been beaten outside the local offices of the security services, the GKNB, in broad daylight. From our March story:
One prominent analyst in Dushanbe sees two possibilities behind Shamsiddinov’s disappearance. On the one hand, he says the GKNB – which regularly faces allegations of intimidation, kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial executions – is a likely culprit. The GKNB, this popular theory goes, wanted to silence Shamsiddinov because he had been cavorting with one of Rakhmon’s political rivals ahead of presidential elections scheduled for November.
The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of provoking the powerful GKNB, also points out, however, that Shamsiddinov had problems within the Society of Uzbeks, especially since his Millat interview, and his disappearance could be related to power struggles within the organization.
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who is more known for jailing journalists than praising them, has warned that his country will end up on the "fringes of global progress" unless it wholeheartedly embraces the media.
Congratulating journalists on a Soviet-era holiday in their honor that is celebrated in Uzbekistan on June 27, Karimov hailed his country’s media as a "mirror of deep socio-political reforms and democratic renewal" and a "powerful force capable of changing the thinking and outlook of our people," the state-run UzA news agency quoted him as saying.
Though he didn’t go so far as to say that Uzbekistan needs a “free media,” the ideas are a bit out of character for the strongman who brooks no decent and jails journalists.
For the past several years Uzbekistan has been continuously ranked one of Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” for censorship and online snooping. Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan 195 of 197 countries (just ahead of Turkmenistan and North Korea) in its most recent "Freedom of the Press" index because "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."
A human rights dialogue between Ashgabat and Brussels has failed to clarify why journalist Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was detained two weeks ago.
Yazmuhamedov, 30, a correspondent with Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service (Azatlyk Radiosy) was detained May 6 on undisclosed charges. He remains in custody where he faces a "grave risk of torture," according to Amnesty International.
Ahead of the Turkmen-EU talks last week, Human Rights Watch called on Ashgabat to "immediately free or credibly charge" the journalist. “We are deeply concerned that the authorities arrested Rovshen Yazmuhamedov because of his work as a journalist,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government doesn’t tolerate public criticism of its policies, no matter how mild.”
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) on May 17 that at a meeting with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat on May 15 the EU human rights delegation expressed concern over Yazmuhamedov’s detention.
State television in Uzbekistan has launched an attack on regional print and broadcast journalists in the Ferghana Valley for allegedly blackmailing entrepreneurs.
This week, O’zbekiston TV’s Oramizdagi Olgirlar (“Scroungers Among Us”) described cases of alleged extortion involving journalists from Namangan and Andijan regions. The report – posted on the station’s website on March 14 – featured interviews with alleged victims and other journalists condemning the "scroungers.”
"Such sleazy people should not be working in this profession," veteran journalist Gulomjon Akbarov said.
The 35-minute program pointed the finger at a magazine called Vatan Kozgusi (“Mirror of the Motherland”), alleging its journalists used fake press cards bearing the logos of international organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It then cheered a court’s decision to jail the magazine’s chief editor, Ravshon Jumayev, for 10 ½ years for allegedly distributing his publication without registration. (The report did not mention him in connection with the blackmail allegations.)
EurasiaNet.org can find no reference to Jumayev elsewhere in the Uzbek press. Still, some Uzbek journalists may feel a bit threatened by the tale. Critical journalists have a tendency to disappear behind bars in Uzbekistan, a country that placed 164 out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index.