Central Asia: Lack of Media Freedom
The authorities of the regional states try to toughen control over media and introduce new instruments to tighten the screws.
The Central Asian countries have never ranked high in global rankings of press freedom index. The authorities of the regional states try to toughen control over media and introduce new instruments to tighten the screws.
In the press freedom ranking of the Reporters Without Borders, almost all region ranks at the bottom of the list. Turkmenistan ranks only above Iran, Eritrea and North Korea by the level of media freedom.
However, all countries have shown better results in the last five years. The situation in Kazakhstan, according to the Reporters Without Borders, improved a little in 2022, but the authorities continued to modernise repression, with growing control of the internet.
This year, the country ranks 122nd and this is the best result in the last five years.
However, authorities reportedly use all available means — arrests, assaults, telecommunications blackouts, internet shutdowns — to prevent coverage of major events, such as the protests in January 2022.
Experts also indicate that access to information is limited, and journalists' questions in governmental briefings are censored, while the government pays private media to disseminate regime propaganda.
Freedom House reported that media independence is severely limited in Kazakhstan.
Analysts indicate that while the constitution provides for freedom of the press, most of the media sector is controlled by the state or government-friendly owners.
In the Freedom in the World 2022 ranking compiled by Freedom House, Kazakhstan scored 23 out of 100.
Kyrgyzstan has been called an exceptional country in Central Asia for its «relative freedom of speech and press freedom despite the unstable economy and rampant corruption in state authorities».
In the last five years, the level of the freedom of speech, according to the Reporters Without Borders, shows stable growth.
Nevertheless, the organisation said that the authorities still try to control all state media and try to spread its influence on private media. Experts also specify that political leaders use some mass media to restrict access of Journalists to information, while official institutions restrict access of journalists to information. Independent editions for criticism of the authorities are regularly punished and sometimes turn into objects of cyber-attacks after publication of articles on corruption. In turn, investigative journalists become objects of violation, as well as case reporters at meetings.
The scandalous law on «Protection from unreliable and false information» that entitles to block information that is considered by authorities as «false» has also been considered. According to the organisation, the law violates international treaties and restricts press freedom.
In the Freedom in the World 2022 ranking, Kyrgyzstan scored 28 out of 100, and has improved its position compared to 2021.
Tajikistan in 2022, according to Reporters Without Borders, has improved its position compared to 2021 and gone 10 positions up.
Nevertheless, the organisation noted that the government watched closely the content disseminated on radio, television and internet. In the Freedom in the World 2022 ranking, Tajikistan scored 8 out of 100.
According to experts, the state shuts down independent media outlets, while freelance journalists face persecutions and intimidations. Besides, authorities regularly block important websites, news portals, and social media platforms, as well as shutdown the internet and messaging services from time to time to suppress criticism.
In the last five years, Tajikistan has never gone up higher than 149th by the level of press freedom in the ranking of the organisation.
In the report for 2022, Reporters Without Borders noted that the government of Turkmenistan maintained tight control of newspapers, radio, television and the internet.
After Serdar Berdymukhamedov, son of the previous leader, became the head of the state in March, surveillance of journalists has intensified. The experts indicated that criticism of the leader and of other officials is prohibited in Turkmenistan.
Journalists who have dared to defy the rules have been prosecuted, imprisoned, tortured and even killed. In turn, Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation, in its Freedom in the World 2022 ranking, designated Turkmenistan as a not free country.
According to analysts, the press freedom is very restricted, while the national internet provider blocks the websites that publish independent news or opposition content.
The position of Uzbekistan in the press freedom ranking of 2022 has improved by 24 points. This year, the country ranks 133rd.
However, according to Reporters Without Borders, criticising state power remains complicated. Privately owned media outlets abstain from any criticism for fear of being shut down. The written press serves state interests. Only 15 media outlets, according to the organisation, publish quality content.
Some of them are based abroad, like the «Fergana» press agency, based in Moscow. In the last five years, the level of media freedom in Uzbekistan has shown both ups and downs. In turn, Freedom House also pointed out that the freedom of speech and press freedom in Uzbekistan remains severely restricted.
The state controls major media outlets and related facilities, and independent outlets were mostly shuttered or blocked under Islam Karimov. In the Freedom in the World 2022 ranking, Uzbekistan has scored 11.
Turkmenistan: Propaganda Machine
Anonymously, ex-journalist of a media outlet in Turkmenistan
When they say that there is «no journalism» in Turkmenistan, it is wide of the truth. Thee universities it the country have profile departments*, which train journalists. International organisations constantly hold a variety of trainings and workshops on journalistic skills. The country has a lot of print media outlets and over a dozen of radio stations and TV channels and some websites.
The difference is that all Turkmen journalism is absolutely servile and does everything to serve the authorities, pursue their ideology and is far from the key task and mission of journalism, i.e. representation and protection of public interests.
As a matter of fact, the journalism in Turkmenistan is a well-organised part of state propaganda, this is the role assigned to it by authorities. However, officials do a poor job of journalism, which is demonstrated by continuous discontent of top country's officials, constant criticism of the media, frequent change of officers, rebuking «media outlets for the failure to do their job of quality coverage of successes, achievements despite the full support of the state…», etc.
The integral part of all media outlets is total censorship, which was actually secured in the keynote speech of first president Niyazov back in 1992, when he declared the national programme «10 years of prosperity»: «…we will impose restrictions on media outlets in this period (10 years of prosperity).» However, the censorship was never cancelled after a lapse of this period despite the ban on censorship that was available in law for some time.
Moreover, as the pressure of the repressive measures on the society increased, journalists imposed strict self-censorship, and the failure to comply with it could lead not only to a job loss, but also to real repression. Since all media outlets in the country belonged to the state, Saparmurad Niyazov was once the founder of most of central newspapers, a job loss meant a ban on the profession for a journalist.
No doubt that the strongest ideology of all media outlets imposes special ethics on journalistic teams and individual journalists.
No personal innuendos are allowed, no compromising materials, no journalistic investigations exist in the arsenal of the media.
However, media outlets readily disseminate information about rare corruption cases when court decisions are available. They can do it only when chief decision-makers authorise it, and when force authorities prepare the content.
Given the high demand for access to higher education and strict state allocation of quotas for university admission, competition for journalism departments has always been intense. Moreover, everyone knows that a job of a journalist is linked to the ideological service of authorities and thus means the proximity to the authorities and a chance to «build a career», get into the «elite», especially when it comes to admission to the Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, where international journalists are trained.
However, the younger generation of journalists has nothing to do with the quality of journalism.
The youth join the rows of ideological front fighters that are fully loyal to authorities and assume no moral or any other responsibility to the society or have no professional duty.
A category of those writing for foreign media outlets refers to «civil activism», «citizen journalism» rather than to a category of journalists in the proper sense of the word. These people usually do not have a degree in journalism and majority of them have no journalistic skills but a striving to communicate information about problems faced by the country and society.
It has an impact on the quality of materials published on émigré websites, which are the key employers for this category of journalists. Given due respect to the courage, often desperate boldness of these people, we need to admit that the reporting and stringer format of their work cannot cover most of the problems and events in the society, not to mention their interpretation and analysis. On the other hand, this format is largely used by émigré websites, often to the detriment of other formats, which makes the real information picture incomplete.
The «citizen journalism» is one of the key enemies of the state and one of the key targets of security services. All those activists do underground work, with few exceptions, hide their names, which is absolutely reasonable.
Numerous cases of repressions against such activists end up mainly with fabricated criminal cases and real prison terms.
Thus, several stringers of the émigré media outlet, Turkmen News, were arrested at once and sentenced in the last few years. Pressure is exerted on reporters suspected of working with the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty.
Nurgeldy Khalykov, correspondent of Turkmen News, was found guilty on a charge of sending of someone else's photo of the WHO mission in an informal setting, which arrived in the country to see the situation during the pandemic. Journalist Soltan Achilova, the only one who does not hide her real name and who cooperated with Radio Azatlyk and other émigré websites is always undergoing physical and psychological coercion. Annamurad Bugaev, correspondent of Radio Azatlyk, has died under unascertained circumstances.
Not reporters and stringers, but ordinary citizens who turn to foreign media outlets and editorial staff with their problems regarding protection of their rights are often exposed to pressure. Those who were courageous enough to disclose their names are doctor Khursanai Ismatullaeva, lawyer Pigamberdy Allaberdyev, gay Kasymberdy Garaev who came out.
Independent bloggers are usually persecuted and criminal cases are fabricated against them. Among them are video bloggers who post their videos on YouTube — Murad Ovezov, Sergei Babaniyazov, Agadzhuma Bairamov.
Establishment of full-scale independent media outlets was attempted back in 1991-1992.
Independent magazine «Dayanch» managed to print only two issues before it was shut down, and its publisher, Mukhametmurad Salamatov, was exposed to physical and psychological pressure. The public and business newspaper, «Contact», managed to print the «zero» issue and was then shut down by decision of President Niyazov. The weekly newspaper «Turkmen spark» managed to publish relatively unrestricted materials, but it was shut down by 1995, and one of its journalists, Natalia Sosnina, went missing.
Afterwards, non-governmental organisations and some activists tried to publish amateur print media in circumvention of the law «On print media» and statutory regulations governing work of media outlets, i.e. they did not have to be officially registered because of small circulation, but they ceased to exist by the end of the 90s.
Some publishers and authors of these amateur print media outlets are known to be exposed to repressions and were driven out of the country, while the laws regulating the work of media and publishing activities were toughened.
In the last years of President Niyazov's regime, any belonging to a foreign media outlet or even suspected belonging was punished by prison terms, while Ogulsapar Muradova, journalist of the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty Azatlyk, died from torture in the prison of the National Security Committee. Moreover, Niyazov and all state propaganda unceremoniously blamed those people for working for «disruptive centres,» «defamation of motherland» and other sins. In other words, those journalists were equated to «public enemies.»
When President Berdymukhamedov took power, pressure on reporters and stringers declined to some extent, but for a while. Other methods were practised — psychological pressure, fabrication of criminal cases, direct provocations, ousting from the country. Moreover, these methods were applied to everyone, and any identified stringer should have been sentenced.
There is no statistics of repressions against journalists in the time of President Serdar Berdymukhamedov, but his tough policy and restrictive measures regarding access to internet surpass restrictive measures of his father regarding freedom of access and dissemination of information. Therefore, there are no grounds to think that Serdar Berdymukhamedov's policy regarding media and journalists will change for the better.
*Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, the Makhtumkuli State University, and International University of Liberal Arts and Development.
Gundogar's note: For more information about the state of the media in other Central Asian states, follow the link https://longreads.cabar.asia/lack_of_media_freedom
Jamila Maricheva, editor and founder of the media project, Protenge.kz, Anna Kapushenko, editor-in-chief of the online publication Kloop.kg, Pairav Chorshanbiev, correspondent of the «Asia-Plus» news agency, Darina Solod, co-founder and producer of Hook.report share their opinion.