Two momentous events - the Kyrgyz revolution and the Andijan shootings -
have coloured the way Central Asian governments view media freedom.
By IWPR staff in Central Asia
Although the media scene varies from country to country in Central Asia, it
tends to be measured in terms of how unfree it is. Over the last year,
political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan and violence in Uzbekistan have made a
generally dismal picture even worse, many local analysts say.
The picture across the region is far from uniform. In its latest survey
"Freedom Of The Press 2006", the media rights watchdog Freedom House classed
the media in all five Central Asian states as “not free”. However,
Kyrgyzstan found itself at the top end of this lowest of categories, because
of liberalisation in the wake of the March 2005 revolution which ousted
President Askar Akaev.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, slid further towards the bottom of Freedom
House’s global list because of the clampdown on media following events on
May 13 last year, when security forces opened fire on crowds of civilian
protesters in the eastern city of Andijan.
In the absence of an independent investigation, eyewitness accounts
suggesting hundreds of dead stung western governments into calling the Uzbek
leadership to account.
Angered by criticism from governments that it had regarded as strategic
allies in the "war on terror", the administration in Tashkent blamed the
messenger. Uzbek officials even went so far as to suggest that reporters
working for IWPR, the BBC and other outlets played a role in fomenting what
they depicted as an Islamic uprising. By the late autumn, international
media organisations had either closed down or were under mounting pressure
from the authorities to pack up and leave.
TOO MUCH FREEDOM?
These two events - the Kyrgyz revolution and Andijan - had a ripple effect
right across the region, informing the way governments viewed their own
In the Kyrgyz case, Central Asian leaderships began worrying whether
excessive amounts of freedom might encourage their own citizens to rebel.
And in some ways, Andijan provided them with an easy answer - best to crack
down now and worry about human rights later.
Outside Kyrgyzstan, the effects of regime change were felt almost
immediately on local media, well before the wider political ramifications
became clear. Even the apparently unshakeable Turkmenistan’s president
Saparmurad Niazov is reported to have been concerned at the sudden removal
of a fellow-leader in Central Asia, although this had little effect on
independent media in his country, since this was crushed out of existence
more than a decade ago.
President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakstan, a country with a shared border
and much in common with Kyrgyzstan, was more immediately concerned at the
implications for media - and subsequent events in Andijan would only harden
attitudes in his government.
“Revolution and regime change in Georgia and Ukraine put the administration
in Kazakstan on its guard,” said Adil Jalilov, director of the Medianet
group. “The events that followed in Kyrgyzstan and then Andijan convinced
the regime once and for all that a clampdown was necessary.”
UZBEK MEDIA SHUTDOWN AFTER ANDIJAN
Since the Kyrgyz revolution spread from the south of the country, which has
a large ethnic Uzbek population, the government in Tashkent was alarmed at
the prospect that people inside Uzbekistan might think they could do the
same. State-controlled broadcasters and newspapers were deployed to portray
the turbulence in Kyrgyzstan as dangerously anarchic - contrasting sharply
with the upbeat domestic news items which are the staple fare of government
But if there was any sense of complacency among Uzbek leaders who thought
signs of dissent could be easily swatted by the country’s substantial police
force, it was shattered on May 13.
As the little-known name of Andijan gained notoriety in the world media,
Uzbek leaders reacted by simply shutting down. The main government news
agency became the sole conduit for the “authorised version”, and small local
media outlets - already tightly controlled at the best of times - were read
the riot act.
“When we learned about events in Andijan from internet news sites, we asked
our editor to find out whether there were any reports on our own news
agencies that we could present to our listeners,” said a newsreader at one
FM radio station in the country. “Under no circumstances could these events
be reported from non-official sources - there were even cases where radio
stations were closed down for broadcasting material before it had been
commented on by the official news services.”
In the weeks and months that followed, the small number of reporters working
for international broadcasters and other news outlets, including IWPR, at
best stopped work altogether, and in many cases fled the country. Foreign
reporters liable to dig up uncomfortable facts were refused entry visas.
“The biggest difficulty in our work used to be that state officials didn’t
want to give interviews or prevented us from getting hold of information,”
said one of the local journalists who stayed behind and is no longer
reporting. “Nowadays, even saying you were preparing material for the
foreign media would mean taking an enormous risk.”
Another effect of the departure of media development organisations has been
to end training for local journalists in Uzbekistan.
“Our television company previously worked with such organisations as Freedom
House, the OSCE, Internews and others,” said a TV company employee. “All
this of course helped increase staff professionalism, and we received
equipment. Now there is none of that.”
The next step for the authorities was to seal up any cracks in the
hermetically sealed bubble they had created. State media became even more
strident in its attacks on pernicious foreign influences, and in December
the law was changed to make life harder for reporters working with
international media outlets.
As one local journalist recalled, “Our editor discussed these amendments
with us, and warned us that from now on, all contacts with international
media would be regarded as criminal. I love my country dearly and I want my
children to be able to speak freely in the future. But fear of criminal
prosecution has forced me to stop working with international media.”
President Niazov might have been expected to applaud his Uzbek counterpart
Islam Karimov’s ruthless suppression of public protests. But he seems to
have taken both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek events as signs that his neighbours
were falling apart, and it was best to steer well clear of both of them.
That, anyway, was the message sent out when his rigorously controlled media
failed to give even a heavily biased account of what happened in Andijan.
Official broadcasters and newspapers simply ignored it, and talked instead
about the latest Turkmen cabinet meetings.
However, times have changed even in Turkmenistan, and people with access to
satellite TV were able to watch Russian news reports, although that
necessarily meant mostly urban rather than rural residents.
“Those people who are potentially capable of mounting an uprising [the rural
poor] remained unaware of what happened in Andijan - and that was the aim of
the authorities; to stop the news from being disseminated among the masses,”
commented a local human rights activist at the time.
SCREWS TIGHTEN GRADUALLY ON KAZAK AND TAJIK MEDIA
In Tajikistan and Kazakstan, the aftershocks from Andijan were also clearly
felt in government attitudes towards the media. But after the immediate
impact, the overall picture is one of a longer-term trend towards
marginalising independent media - often equated with the opposition press in
the minds of suspicious officials.
The Tajik leadership had been getting tougher with non-state media in any
case. Two leading independent newspapers - Nerui Sokhan and Ruzi Nav -
remain firmly closed, and the authorities have stalled on issuing permits
for new media to operate.
As Ruzi Nav's chief editor Rajabi Mirzo put it, "The closure of our paper
and a number of others was a hard lesson to other owners and editors. They
have become more cautious about what they publish…. Right now there is no
tangible pressure on the media, since what's the point of punishing
journalists when they're pretty careful about what they publish anyway and
don't want to lose their jobs?"
Media industry observers initially ascribed the clampdown to a desire to
curb free expression ahead of the parliamentary election in February last
year, but when things failed to ease up, they began suggesting that a
mixture of fallout from Andijan and concerns about the November 2006
presidential election were to blame.
RESTRICTIVE POLICIES PURSUED THROUGH THE COURTS
Tajikistan and Kazakstan have seen occasional assaults on journalists and
arrests for libel and other alleged misdemeanours. But in both countries the
picture is complicated by the fact that disputes over media freedom are
often framed within complex technical matters such as broadcast frequencies
and stakeholder ownership, or legal battles over what constitutes
In Tajikistan, for example, the secretary general of the Media Alliance,
Zebo Tajibaeva, argues that free speech is alive and well, and that it is
the journalists who ought to be more careful about what they write when they
choose to criticise the powers that be.
Marat Mamadshoev, editor of the weekly Asia Plus, recounted once case which,
on the surface, looked like a mundane disagreement over bureaucracy, “Over a
year ago I tried to register a new newspaper. But the justice ministry
returned the documents four times because of alleged mistakes in them, and I
couldn't realise my plan."
The point is, says Mamadshoev, that virtually no new print media outlets are
getting through these complex obstacles and winning permission to start up.
The same kind of thing happens in Kazakstan. Once again, an election - the
December vote in which President Nazarbaev won an easy victory - compounded
fresh memories of Kyrgyzstan and Andijan to evoke a tougher approach from
the authorities, but the general trend remains the same.
"Attempts are made to employ various methods to close down newspapers which
do not support the policies of the state," said Seitkazy Mataev, chairman of
the Kazakstan Journalists’ Union. "The judicial process is used, and
journalists are [also] beaten up - the most recent case of the latter
involved the executive secretary of the Aina Plus newspaper."
According to Makhambet Auezov, political commentator for the Delovaya
Nedelya newspaper, “One might say that the state directly controls the major
electronic media, and more or less indirectly tries to influence the print
media. Those outlets regarded as unruly are vulnerable to frequent tax
checks, or strange incidents where safes full of documents get stolen."
Auezov sees a parallel trend where the Kazak government is seeking to exert
even stronger control over major TV stations which are, in formal terms,
commercially owned, though none ever deviates far from the official
editorial line. He believes three major channels - Khabar, Kazakstan and
El-Arna - may be consolidated within one management structure in which the
state has a larger shareholding.
When it comes to the basic principle of freedom of expression, the positions
of the Kazak government and its critics remain worlds apart.
Opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov, for example, speaks of an "invisible
censorship" in which - although the official censor's pen is banned under
the constitution - "every editor knows the list of subjects it's better not
to mention and the issues it's best to avoid raising unless you want
However, Culture and Press Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev insists his office
is the natural protector of journalistic freedoms.
“Our position is that if any paper is closed down by the authorities, the
ministry will always protect the interests of that newspaper. If executive
and administrative authorities exert pressure on local newspapers, the
ministry will of course always protect the interests of journalists and the
media,” he said.
That role may be made harder by new legislation passed in January. Changes
to the law resulted in what the Adil Soz free speech group says is the
toughest media legislation in the former Soviet Union. The new arrangements
equip Ertysbaev's ministry and local government bodies with substantial
levers of control over the media.
In Tajikistan, too, media legislation - this time intended to defend
journalists' rights - went before parliament. The draft law, submitted by
lawmaker Yusuf Ahmedov in November last year, had laudable aims, but was
shot down after the government argued there was no need for improved
protections for reporters.
WHICH WAY WILL KYRGYZSTAN GO?
Finally, there is Kyrgyzstan itself, where the media scene is as complicated
and contradictory as the broader political situation, one year on from the
revolution that was supposed to change everything.
Regime change and a measure of liberalisation meant that media outlets - or
rather their owners - were shuffled around to produce a new configuration of
political forces, replacing the simple pro- and anti-Akaev divide that
According to political analyst Aziz Soltobaev, so many new emerging
political players tried to find a voice in the media that the picture became
“Only last year, 26 new media outlets were registered, not counting internet
publications which mostly operate without registering,” he said. “If you
look at market volumes and at the amount of advertising that traditionally
supports media, this has gone down significantly recently. The explanation
is simple: many outlets are backed by influential sponsors who want to have
their own mouthpiece.”
Some see the multiplicity of voices as a good thing. Nadyr Momunov, press
secretary to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, argues that freedom of expression
is strong even if it is still a work in progress.
“Everything is fine with freedom of speech here. Of course there are some
problems, but one needs to be tolerant. And demanding real steps from the
president in the space of one year is unrealistic, as well," said Momunov.
"We're operating by a different principle: respect the opinions of others,
don't suppress them.”
Those sentiments would be echoed by many journalists across Central Asia, if
not by Momunov's equivalents in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The real question now is whether Kyrgyzstan will develop along the lines of
one of its neighbours, or whether a more enlightened attitude to press
freedom will prevail. When the chief prosecutor of Bishkek, Uchkun Karimov,
warned the Litsa and Komsomolskaya Pravda newspapers in January that they
were overstepping the mark by publishing defamatory material about President
Bakiev, many feared a downturn,
But the overriding mood of the moment seems to be that stagnation has set
in, rather than a radical deterioration or improvement.
Elvira Sarieva, executive director of the media development organisation
Internews Kyrgyzstan, lists reforms that the Bakiev government has failed to
implement before concluding, "There have been no changes in the media sector
over the last year - and even if there have been changes, the people have
not sensed them.”
This report was compiled by Kumar Bekpolotov in Bishkek, Baurjan Tleusenov
(pseudonym) in Kazakstan, and other IWPR contributors in the region. The
names of interviewees in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been withheld out
of concern for their security.