From the RFE/RL Central Asia Report Vol. 6, No. 8, 10 March 2006: CENTRAL ASIA: INTERNET FILLS VOID LEFT BY MEDIA ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ISSUES While the degree of media freedom varies considerably among the five countries of Central Asia, there appears to be a region-wide aversion to the thorny issue of religious freedom. It is difficult to gauge whether the reasons might lie in a reluctance to confront controversy -- as some argue -- or in state-imposed strictures or even a fear of offending. The result is that, aside from cursory references to the dominant religions, the domestic media have generally shied away from questions of faith. But civil-society groups and independent media outlets -- with the help of increased Internet penetration -- are trying to change that. The barriers to free expression are considerable in this region, where authoritarian administrations are often eager to keep a tight lid on public debate. That presents a considerable challenge for media organizations, which operate without the safeguards enjoyed by their counterparts in the West, and sometimes leaves local journalists fearing for their own safety. Taboo Topic Eric Freedman is on the faculty of the journalism school at Michigan State University. He recently conducted research into independent news websites' coverage of religion in Central Asia. He concluded that the topic of freedom of conscience remains almost untouched among domestic media. "News organizations -- whether they are independent or supported by [nongovernmental organizations] or a state or a party --tend to avoid controversies and political controversies," Freedman said. "And religion certainly falls into that category of public policy and political controversy in the region." Local journalists tend to avoid religious freedom issues, he says, while coverage of religion is often limited to dominant faiths --like Sunni Islam -- and other officially recognized confessions, such as Orthodox Christianity. Control Over Media In countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, authorities regularly exercise control over what media outlets publish. That allows them to publish selectively to achieve official aims. In mid-January, an official from the Uzbek State Committee for Religious Affairs, Behzod Qodyrov, touted a rise in the number of registered religious groups to 2,186. The figure, he argued, "proves the absence of any restrictions or obstacles to freedom of religion in Uzbekistan." Igor Rotar is a Central Asia correspondent for Forum-18, a Norway-based news agency specializing in religious rights. He told RFE/RL that the Uzbek announcement was a prime example of official propaganda. "There was a recent statement by an official who wrote that so-and-so many religious organizations are registered in Uzbekistan and that this is a proof of religious freedom," Rotar said. "But he 'forgot' to mention that this number is equal to just one-third the number of religious organizations registered in Kazakhstan [where the population is smaller]. He also said that the Jehovah's Witnesses group was registered in Uzbekistan but he 'forgot' to mention that they are registered in just two towns. In other parts of the country, police regularly detain Jehovah's Witnesses. Two people served over one year in prison each simply for their belief." Internet A Valuable Source Michigan State University's Freedman said Internet news agencies, NGOs, and the international community have become major providers of information on religious issues in Central Asia despite obstacles to Internet viewing. The Internet appears to be partly filling the void left after Western radio stations -- including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- were closed down in Uzbekistan. Freedman singles out the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting; the Open Society Institute's; and IRIN News, the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks. He adds the Moscow-based website and Forum-18 to his list of Internet pioneers: "It looks at [religious freedom] and it reports on it in a way that is very much like traditional Western European and U.S. coverage in that stories tend to be fact-based," Freedman said. "There is an attempt to obtain multiple viewpoints, although what the Forum-18 experience and what the other news services we looked at have encountered -- and certainly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- is that government officials are often not responsive to press inquiries regardless where they come from." Still, the environment for such reporting remains mostly unfriendly in official terms. Independent media outlets feel compelled to rely heavily on anonymous sources. Local reporters often work under pseudonyms to avoid harassment and possible prosecution. Forum-18's Igor Rotar was detained upon his arrival in the Tashkent airport in August and deported to Russia two days later. He has reported on harassment of Baptists in Kazakhstan and Hare Krishna followers in western Uzbekistan, and he wrote about the demolition of a synagogue in Tajikistan, among other issues. Brighter Future However, information providers are optimistic about the Internet's future in Central Asia despite the current obstacles for would-be viewers. Daniil Kislov is the founder of the information agency: "According to our estimates, about 2 percent of Uzbek citizens get information from the Internet either by visiting websites or receiving print-outs from relatives and friends," Kislov said. "I should point out that the influence of Internet publications and the number of Internet users are growing because people seek news in the current information vacuum. Internet is also the most influential media among the elites." Such reasoning suggests the impact of Internet coverage of religious-freedom issues is strong and influences elites both in the West and inside Central Asian. "One of the longer term impacts, I think, of reporting from the outside on Central Asia is that it does raise awareness among policymakers and funding agencies and NGOs in other parts of the world," Freedman said. "So that if you were with the World Bank, for example, or the OSCE, or Committee to Protect Journalists, or another entity in the West, this is a way you get information. You may ultimately work that in as you make decisions on who to fund, who to loan money to. Individuals on the outside make pressure on their members of parliament or congress to do something. So there is the possibility that will generate some outside pressure." Freedman stressed that media coverage raises the awareness of local citizens, including those working for government institutions. Such efforts to inform extend beyond the existing situation to include examples from the international community, he said. That could translate into long-term gains as young people form their opinions about issues like freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on March 7, 2006.)