The United States plans to cancel all Voice of America programming in Uzbek and will significantly scale back Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programming in Kazakh, if a Bush administration proposal is approved by the Democrat-controlled US Congress.
Critics say the move would deprive Uzbek- and Kazak-language listeners of a key outlet for news, emphasizing that Uzbekistan in particular is notorious for its efforts to stifle free speech. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US administrators who manage the broadcasts say they are only cutting programming that few people listen to anyway.
Under the Bush administration's proposed government budget for fiscal year 2008, four hours a week of VOA broadcasts in Uzbek would be eliminated. But much more extensive broadcasts on RFE/RL, 42 hours a week, would be untouched. In addition, the 56 hours a week of Kazakh-language programming on RFE/RL would be cut down to 14 hours a week. VOA does not broadcast in Kazakh at all.
For a country, like the United States, which is interested in promoting democratic values, the VOA and RFE/RL cutbacks would send the wrong message to citizens in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, said Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, head of the Atameken Party in Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are moving away from democracy," Dosmukhamedov said, adding that political leaders in Tashkent and Astana were likely to view the broadcasting cutbacks as a sign of "weakness."
"You can't show your weakness," he added. "You have to keep up the pressure."
The cuts would be "good news for Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's authoritarian ruler and suppressor of press freedom," agreed Ted Lipien, a former VOA official and head of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for press freedom worldwide. Lipien also noted that Kazakhstan has a poor record of press freedom.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages VOA and RFE/RL, says it's doing the best it can with limited resources. The services plan to focus more heavily on broadcasts in the Middle East, and on Venezuela and North Korea -- two countries that have emerged as Bush administration bete noires in recent year.
"We'd like to keep everything, but we can't," said Larry Hart, a spokesman for the BBG. The programming to be cut is on mediumwave or shortwave, not FM, which is what most people listen to in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Hart maintained. BBG polling has shown that in Uzbekistan only 10 percent of the population owns shortwave radios and US programming has been unable to get local stations to pick it up on FM, he said. In Kazakhstan, the cancelled programs have only "a miniscule audience," he said. "There's nobody listening, is what it comes down to."
But that's not a good enough excuse, countered Lipien. BBG officials should be asking; "OK, if it's true that no one is listening to the programs, then what do we do about it?" Lipien asserted. He noted that in Central Asia local radio stations are likely to be pressured not to run VOA and RFE/RL programs on FM. "You reward that government for shutting down the service -- so there's a problem with this sort of logic," he said.
He suggested that there was a lack of political will in Washington to promote the programming in Central Asia. In addition, opinion polling data in Central Asia is notoriously unreliable, thus there is no way to be exactly sure of how many people are listening to American broadcasts, Lipien said. "In a country like Uzbekistan, it's highly unlikely that an average person would admit listening to VOA or RFE," he said.
This is the second time the administration has tried to cut Uzbek-language programming. The 2004 budget cancelled Uzbek programming on VOA, but Congress reinstated the funding -- as they could do this time, as well.
The United States is not alone in using polling to determine which services it provides, however. The British Broadcasting Corp. stopped its Kazakh broadcasts in 2005 after determining that its audience in Kazakhstan was only about 30,000 people, said Mike Gardner, a BBC spokesman.
The Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The Kazakhstan Embassy declined to comment.
Bokhodir Choriyev, a US-based Uzbek dissident who last year led a high-profile battle to get his views aired on RFE/RL, supported the decision to stop VOA programming in Uzbek. "Nobody listens to the VOA in Uzbekistan," he said.
But Galima Bukharbayeva, an opposition journalist from Uzbekistan, said that even though she never listened to VOA, she opposed the decision. "It will have a bad impact," she said. "We have so limited sources of independent information. For me it will be sort of a moral loss, we are getting smaller and smaller."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.