Central Asia: No Surprises for Press Freedom—Annual Watchdog Report
Delivering the usual grim assessment on press freedom in Central Asia, the Committee to Protect Journalists says the region’s media continue to be shaken by “tactics to intimidate, harass and imprison journalists.” CPJ released its annual Attacks on the Press report on February 21.
Even in Kyrgyzstan, celebrated for its shift from authoritarian leadership to parliamentary rule, attacks on journalists continue to rise. In 2011, eight media workers were assaulted, CPJ counted, while ethnic Uzbeks working in the field were forced to flee or, in the case of Azimjan Askarov, remain languishing in prison.
“Rising violence, censorship, and politically motivated prosecutions against the media marred the year in Kyrgyzstan. Parliament decriminalized libel, but moved to censor foreign press coverage. Ethnic Uzbek journalists were targeted for legal reprisals” in the wake of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The report adds:
After the June 2010 conflict, ethnic Uzbek media owners Khalil Khudaiberdiyev and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev faced attacks, harassment, and retaliatory prosecution. Authorities forced Khudaiberdiyev to sell his company, Osh TV. Mirzakhodzhayev suspended operation of Mezon TV and the newspapers Portfeland Itogi Nedeli. The outlets had produced news in Uzbek, as well as in Russian and Kyrgyz. As both owners fled the country, the country's largest ethnic minority was left without access to news in its native language.
Neighboring Uzbekistan remains one of the worst places to be a journalist and now ranks as “among the world’s worst nations in forcing journalists to flee,” with 18 journalists escaping “threats, harassment, and imprisonment over the past decade.” In 2011, authorities tried to prevent VOA reporter Abdumalik Boboyev, who in 2010 was fined $8,000 for “insulting the Uzbek people,” from leaving the country. Five journalists are known to be in jail in Uzbekistan, according to the report:
CPJ's analysis found that all of the imprisoned journalists were convicted on fabricated charges and sentenced in retaliation for their critical reporting on regional authorities and government. Among those in custody was Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a reporter jailed on falsified drug charges after exposing police corruption.
Authorities block hundreds of websites perceived as critical or otherwise dangerous including, most recently, Wikipedia pages in the Uzbek language. In Tajikistan, defamation lawsuits are a favorite government method for silencing critical media outlets. Defamation, CPJ wrote, is punishable with fines 500 to 1,000 times the minimum monthly wage. Insult is punishable with two years in prison and fines up to 500 times the country’s minimum monthly wage. The report lists a number of specific cases:
Investigative journalists were targeted with retaliatory arrests and debilitating lawsuits, marking a decline in press freedom conditions. Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov, a reporter for the independent weekly Nuri Zindagi, was imprisoned for nearly a year on defamation charges related to stories on government corruption in the northern Sogd region. BBC correspondent Urinboy Usmonov spent a month in jail after security agents arrested him on extremism charges stemming from his reports on the banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The independent newspaper Asia Plus and reporter Ramziya Mirzobekova faced a civil lawsuit from a senior Interior Ministry official who accused them of spreading false information in a story about a man who died in government custody, press reports said.
CPJ singled out Kazakhstan for providing one of the only “bright spots” in the region – the sentencing of three men for the 2009 murder of Kyrgyz journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk – but noted the country otherwise has a “grim press freedom record.” Like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan uses defamation suits to silence critics:
An Almaty court ruled in favor of Saltanat Akhanova, wife of Kazakhstan's financial police head, in a defamation lawsuit against editor Gulzhan Yergaliyeva and her news website Guljan. The damages, equivalent to US $33,800, stemmed from Guljan articles that described foreign assets allegedly held by Akhanova. The plaintiff had sought 2.6 billion tenge.
Kazakh authorities also continued their campaign to silence the Respublika newspaper, which EurasiaNet.org described in detail last March.
On three occasions -- in January, March, and October -- authorities confiscated or bought off the print runs of the independent weekly Respublika-Delovoye Obozreniye, according to the press freedom group Adil Soz. Authorities did not provide an explanation, Adil Soz reported. The critical outlet had long been at odds with authorities, CPJ research shows.
After three years, Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the independent weekly Alma-Ata Info, remains in prison on vague “antistate charges” for publishing security service memos exposing corruption and collusion in a tax-evasion case.
In early 2012, the situation for journalists in Kazakhstan continues to deteriorate, with the arrest of newspaper editor Igor Vinyavsky on charges of advocating the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order by allegedly circulating a critical leaflet in 2010. Vinyavsky’s arrest looks designed to silence a critic as part of a wide-ranging crackdown following parliamentary elections in January that the opposition, and foreign monitors, called blatantly rigged, as well as violent unrest in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in December.
CPJ’s assessment held few surprises for press freedom in one of the world’s most notoriously unfree regions. Turkmenistan, which a recent analysis by Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s most repressive countries,” was not included in CPJ’s report.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.