The US Congress is considering legislation that would attempt to counter efforts by repressive governments, including those in the Caucasus and Central Asia, to restrict public access to information. The measures focus on electronic media, noting that "unrestricted access to news and information on the internet is a check on repressive rule by authoritarian regimes around the world." Media watchdogs characterize the proposed US legislation as "helpful," but stress that laws would need accompanying support for journalists in order to advance freedom of expression in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and elsewhere.
On October 2, United States Representatives Christopher Cox (R-California) and Tom Lantos (D-California) introduced the Global Internet Freedom Act, a bill aiming to frustrate foreign governments' efforts to censor Internet use. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced a companion bill in the Senate eight days later; both bills are sitting in committees while members of Congress campaign before November elections.
The bills mention several countries as grave offenders, including China. But human rights experts and US lawmakers have noted repeatedly that all Central Asian governments have suppressed free speech. [For background see the EurasiaNet Civil Society archives]. "The Central Asian republics certainly qualify" for the bill's provisions, said a House leadership staffer, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "In Central Asia there is less than complete freedom."
The bills aim to thwart government efforts to "jam," or block phone lines from carrying certain kinds of Internet traffic. They would set up an office within the International Broadcasting Bureau "with the sole mission of countering Internet jamming and blocking by repressive regimes," and give this office between $60 million and $100 million over two years to invest in anti-jamming technology. The bills would encourage the International Broadcasting Bureau to attract programmers and Internet advocates to help citizens in repressive regimes with internet access. As the House staffer explained, "if a person can't get onto [a popular site], he or she can be sent an Internet protocol address to log into, and once they're logged in they are bounced from [blocked] site to [blocked] site" using another country's network.
The law, if passed and vigorously enforced, would oblige American officials to challenge some policies in the region. For example, in Kazakhstan, government ISPs have blocked certain sites and Uzbek authorities have periodically blocked a Moscow-based opposition site called Ferghana.ru, according to an expert on the region.
The policy statement that precedes these proposed bills cites state-owned Internet service monopolies as frequent suppressors of free speech. Liberalization of phone networks has not progressed far in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and Central Asian telecommunications companies imposed fees on Internet users or restricted their access to content in 2001. [For background, see the EurasiaNet Business and Economics archives]. Uzbekistan's and Kazakhstan's Internet providers began connecting to China's server computers, meaning that Kazakh and Uzbek Internet users had to live with the same censored Internet that China forces on its own citizens. While a State Department-funded Internet Access and Training Program continues to promote Internet use and expertise in the Caucasus and Central Asia, patterns of media control in these countries do not suggest that governments will tolerate the Internet as a means of unchecked education or dissent.
"This legislation will definitely be helpful in protecting the free flow of information," says Alex Lupis, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "But it shouldn't replace or lessen US support for independent journalists because unless they feel safe they won't publish critical information on the Web."
The Internet Freedom Act does not appear to address more traditional forms of censorship. That ultimately may weaken the legislation's ability to promote free speech and access to information in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Observers note that government intimidation of independent journalists has often discouraged them from pursuing stories that oppose government policies, or expose official malfeasance. Numerous journalists in the Caucasus and Central Asia have been imprisoned or beaten for writing stories critical of their governments. [For additional information see EurasiaNet's Civil Society archives. Also see the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations web site].
Central Asian governments have consistently tried to restrict free expression. Reflecting their countries' underdeveloped infrastructure, many of these efforts have involved restrictions on old technologies. A February 6 article in Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstan, for example, reported that authorities would "monitor all copying machines in the republic" to stop the flow of leaflets from Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic party. The Russian-language Uzbek newspaper Pravda Vostoka reported in July that Uzbek authorities had begun monitoring the use of radio frequencies in the country "to detect illegal use of the airwaves" and presumably allowing authorities to track what the 53 licensed airwave users are saying. Kazakhstan is developing a media law that press advocates complain is too cumbersome and leaves journalists too exposed to capricious punishment. But Kazakhstani authorities seem more worried about old media; when it required foreign news organizations to register with the Ministry of Culture, Information and Public Accord on August 15, it exempted Web sites from the obligation.
In addition to investing in technology, though, the congressional bills would require the Office of Global Internet Freedom to record "policies of Internet censorship, blocking, and other abuses" with the US State Department. Annual reports would "provide information concerning the government agencies or quasi-governmental organizations that implement Internet censorship and describe with the greatest particularity practicable" the technology that governments use.
Alec Appelbaum is a contributing editor to EurasiaNet.