Distorted Pictures

by Nathan Hamm on 7/3/2006 · 5 comments

RFE/RL’s Gulnoza Saidazimova has a story arguing that the tendency of the Western media to focus on the eccentricities of Turkmenbashi distracts attention from the country’s real problems and presents a distorted picture of life in Turkmenistan. That is a fair enough point. After all, when the Western media bothers to report on Turkmenistan at all, it usually is because of some bizarre utterance or act of Sapurmurat Niazov. Saidazimova spoke with Eric Freedman of the Michigan State journalism school who claims that others get it right.

Freedman says Western media coverage gets more serious when prominent international groups, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the World Health Organization take interest in certain events in the country.

Of course, we then promptly hear from HRW’s Allison Gill who concurs that there’s not nearly enough coverage of the country’s real problems the only thing that matters, human rights issues.

My point is not to pick on human rights organizations, per se. But, it is worth noting that this problem of distorted views of life and public policy issues is not confined to Turkmenistan. For example, Ben Paarmann notes that many journalists overstate the success of Kazakhstan, distorting the realities of income distribution and the nature of economic growth. In regard to Uzbekistan, I would not go so far as to say the country is maligned if only to minimize the odds of me being called a Karimov apologist. But calling the country a place where dissidents are boiled alive (which, as far as I have read, is known to have happened twice) certainly fails to communicate too many realities about the country.

Freedman is certainly right that international agencies and advocacy groups do a better job on average than the media tends to. However, especially where advocacy groups are concerned, they will overemphasize the problems they are concerned with. And that is as it should be. It is, after all, the job of advocacy groups to advocate for their causes and that of international organizations to deal solely with what is on their bureaucratic turf. They are no substitute for the press.

Sadly, I do not see the Western media improving its coverage of Central Asia too much. Editors would have to care first and local governments–especially Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s–would have to create more relaxed environments for foreign journalists. On top of that, it would help if more Western journalists would, when reporting on the region, spend a little more time talking to the locals–something that IWPR already does quite well. Maybe that’s the answer to the questsion… Hire more local journalists to write stories and quit loading up their stories with stupid little recycled chunks of filler.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence July 3, 2006 at 7:36 pm

Nathan, Eric Freedman was a Fulbright Scholar in Tashkent, teaaching journalism at the State University of World Languages the year before I went to Uzbekistan. He did a good job of briefing me before my trip, and was helpful to me while I was there, providing emailed advice and so forth. I guess he got a grant from someone to do his research–it would be interesting to see if we now get a torrent of anti-Turkmenistan news stories, NGO reports, and so on. I guess we can track Turkmen news on Eurasianet to get some idea of the trend…

Major John July 4, 2006 at 4:20 pm

I rather like to think it is more in my interest to come to this blog, especially this blog, and others like publispundit, etc., to find out what is going on in Central Asia. Yes, I wish the legacy media did more to let us all know what is going on in your AOI – but you all do a fine job, thanks very much.

Peter July 4, 2006 at 6:35 pm

The limitations of reporting on Turkmenistan are easy enough to intuit, so reliance on local journalists is not much of an option. If anything, such coverage as comes from people on the ground often tends to be partial and/or exaggerated. Two recurrent sources that I have occasionally used for my blog are Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei and the German radio station Deutsche Welle’s Russian service. The primary appeal of these sources is that the content is rarely available in English-language media and touches on a wider range of issues than the relatively limited scope of human rights concerns. Not that this is not a crucial topic, but its domination of the Turkmen news agenda gives a fundamentally one-dimensional understanding of the challenges that people in the country must deal with on a daily basis. Yet there are some problems with even this limited reporting that is done about the country from journalists with supposed connections on the inside.
Coverage by Vremya Novostei is usually from Moscow-based journalist Arkady Dubnov, who often claims to base his sensational stories upon the testimony of Turkmen officials and citizens. However, his association with former deputy Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was jailed in 2003 on the charge of having allegedly participated in an assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov, has severely compromised his credibility. Meanwhile, Deutsche Welle is similarly liberal in its policy of basing its stories on unconfirmed, and often unconfirmable, sources. As compelling as the stories sound, the journalistic style is frequently of a type that would be accepted by few credible Western media organisations. Again though, this merely throws up the Catch-22 that any responsible correspondent wishing to deal in credible journalism confronts.
One of the consequences that speaking to journalists can carry was neatly illustrated by the recent arrest of human rights workers in Ashgabat. Among the reasons offered for the detention of Annakurban Amanklychev, one of the suspects in question, was that he met with BBC correspondent Lucy Ash, from who he is also accused of receiving a sum of $600. Ash has to date failed to return an e-mail from me requesting some insight into this accusation, but in a conversation with her researcher on the Assignment programme I was told that every possible provision had been taken to avoid this very type of detection. This caution and the relatively high profile of these latest victims of political targeting notwithstanding, safety cannot be guaranteed.
Again though, this may be only part of a greater problem. It is easy to be accused of cynicism in questioning the motivations of human rights and advocacy organisations, who often provide the sparse news items we rely on, but it is an often noted fact that these organisations have their own agendas based on NGO politics instead of the interests of the people that they should represent. I should specify that I am playing the devil’s advocate in saying this, but the general idea reflects some of my misgivings. Achievements such as apparently successful bid to thwart the revocation of the EU’s trade embargo on Turkmenistan, as reported in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Tuesday, show that concerted campaigns can yield some results. Yet, even in this seemingly positive situation there is cause to fear that certain political ends may come to outweigh the essential benefits that such activities may be meant to accrue for the interested countries. This, again, is a symptom of foreigners and exiled activists dominating the agenda.
Sadly, there are no obvious solutions that present themselves in the face of these problems. A start, though, would be to understand that the voices we seem keen to hear and listen to will not necessarily say the things we expect of them. The quality and content of the limited testimony that comes from countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan should challenge and nuance our preconceived notions rather than compounding them.

Laurence July 9, 2006 at 2:46 am

Nathan, I’ve received this clarification from Eric Freedman about his Turkmenistan report:

Actually, I got no grant for that research project. It was a content analysis-based study done from the comfort of the Michigan State campus


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