To mark this last-ever edition of our EurasiaChat podcast, we decided to take a glance at the health of the media scene across Central Asia.
The report card does not make for encouraging reading.
Peter Leonard, Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor, kicked things off with Kyrgyzstan, which has been the site of some troubling developments of late.
In the latest alarming sign of decline, a court there last week ruled to dissolve independent media outlet Kloop, which has gained particular prominence for its numerous hard-hitting investigative reports into corruption.
Prosecutors argued that the outlet’s reporting is having a negative effect on the public’s mental health and driving many to take drugs and engage in sexually depraved behavior.
But as Peter and co-presenter Alisher Khamidov noted, this is part of a broader worsening in the state of civil society in the country. This issue was the subject of an Amnesty International statement published on February 8.
Lawmakers started laying the traps early on in the tenure of President Sadyr Japarov.
Kloop has fallen in part prey to a 2021 Law on Protection from False Information, which gave the Culture Ministry the power to order the removal of any publications deemed to contain "false information" without requiring a judicial order. The legislation raised concerns among international observers and domestic civil society about the potential for misuse against journalists and media organizations.
Their fears have been proven right.
Uzbekistan has a different narrative. Not necessarily better, but different.
There was actually good news of sorts earlier this month when a court ordered that Otabek Sattoriy, a citizen journalist in Uzbekistan who had been sentenced to serve more than six years in prison on extortion and libel charges in 2021, be released.
In his part of the country, down in southern Uzbekistan, Sattoriy was among the more prominent practitioners of a genre of citizen journalism – popularly known as blogging – that has emerged since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to office in 2016.
The authorities have been caught on the hop by the blogging boom.
As Alisher explained, they have fought something of a rear-guard battle of late against the more troublesome figures through prosecution and by trying to cast them as untrustworthy muckrakers and extortionists.
Kazakhstan too, like Kyrgyzstan, has tried to wrestle with a near-ungovernable social media scene by legislating to give itself the ultimate right to determine the difference between truth and fact. Indeed, the situation there feels like a cross between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Under a law adopted in July, people found to be using social media to disseminate anything deemed to be disinformation could be liable for punishment.
Critics at the time were consternated.
“What is false information?” asked one. “There is no clear definition in the law, anything can be included in theory, so this could be an attempt to introduce self-censorship.”
As Peter argued, this is a problem very much of the government’s own making. Through a combination of censorship for the malcontents and subsidies for the loyalists, the authorities have cultivated a sclerotic media scene. The result is that many rely for news and opinions on a wild social media space that those same authorities now want to suffocate with the law.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are bleak stories that deserve more attention, although more than can be accommodated in a single podcast.
To cap off a mournful look at the journalism scene, Alisher and Peter devoted some time to thinking about the declining fortunes of reporting about Central Asia by the international press.
The halcyon era, for want of a better term, was after the 9/11 terrorist attack and the war on Afghanistan that it precipitated. For years, Western journalists washed through the region, blessing it with unusual levels of attention.
With Western designs for Afghanistan having been dashed, that curiosity has since withered.
Lack of understanding will make for bad policy. And since foreign media does not have the attention span for telling Central Asia’s story properly, the time has now come for local reporters to pick up the baton. But will they be up for the challenge?
This podcast was produced by Aigerim Toleukhanova.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in Bishkek.