One of the human rights that has seen significant improvement since the fall of the Soviet Union is the right to free speech. Today, all but two CIS states --Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- have abolished state censorship. (Azerbaijan joined those ranks only last year, as a precondition for accession to the Council of Europe.)
But the recent attack on the offices of the independent Kazakhstani newspaper "Edil Zhayiq" in Oral city provides fresh evidence that governments continue to repress free speech in the most blatant and brutal manner.
On February 3, unknown assailants slashed the door at "Edil-Zhayiq" and ransacked its offices, destroying equipment and removing private documents. Political corruption makes it unlikely that a police investigation will uncover government involvement, if it existed. Journalists in Kazakhstan are therefore left to draw their own conclusions about the intended message of the attack, and tailor their own work accordingly.
The appearance of the World Wide Web is adding a new dimension to the free speech issue in Central Asia. The Internet should be providing liberating alternatives for these journalists and others attempting to exercise their right to free speech, as it has done around the globe. Instead, most of the governments of Central Asia and the Caucasus have attempted to co-opt the Internet as little more than the latest tool for controlling free expression. According to Reporteurs Sans Frontiers, Azerbaijan and the five Central Asian CIS states comprise more than one-quarter of the twenty "real enemies" of free Internet access worldwide.
According to the RSF 1999 report, the Central Asian and Azerbaijani governments restrict or deny Internet access in various ways. Turkmenistan holds an outright monopoly on Internet access. In Tajikistan, Internet services are available only in the capital, and all Internet traffic there is controlled by a state-owned company. The governments of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan allow some independent service providers to function since all Internet operations, government and independent alike, are controlled by the state's telecommunications ministry. The governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan charge independent service providers prohibitively high fees for usage and connection to the Internet and thereby limit the number of potential users.
Why do Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan favor this type of civic control more than almost any other countries in the world?
One answer may be that their control of the Internet is simply an extension of their general suspicion about the merits of free speech. All the governments have sent journalists to jail in recent years. All have enforced criminal liability for "insulting the honor and dignity" of senior government officials, notably the head of state, which has silenced poets and politicians alike. Government actions thus have had a muzzling impact on an independent media.
Another factor is connected to privatization. Media outlets have been bought up by the government-affiliated elite, which has a vested interest in curbing criticism of the state. For example, the biggest owner of ostensibly independent media in Kazakhstan is the president's daughter, whose husband happens to be the head of the Almaty National Security Committee. Such an ownership network made it possible for Internet service providers in Kazakhstan to block opposition web sites for unidentified "technical reasons" prior to the parliamentary elections in November.
Financial backers of Internet-related development in the region should reexamine their response to incursions on free-speech rights in Central Asia. They can urge governments to lift undue restrictions, as well as protest vigorously individual instances of abuse, such as the adoption of laws or decrees that create government oversight bodies of the Internet.
At the same time, donors can maximize the human-rights potential of their funding by supporting the use of more protective Internet communication, such as providing encoding software and relevant training to journalists, human rights defenders, and other civic actors. They should give independent media the financial resources to purchase autonomous rights to means of communication whether the Internet or local media -- and be willing to speak out on their behalf when they suffer undue government incursions on their free speech rights.
The rise of Internet use in the Caucasus and Central Asia is promising, and offers a badly needed new venue for free expression. But in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, the advent of the Internet has not heralded democratic reform. Until regional governments loosen restrictions on free speech, state manipulation of Internet access will continue to serve as a high-tech alternative to the messier business of ransacking media offices.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.