By ERIC FREEDMAN
By nature I’m an optimist, but also a realist. And as all journalists should be, I’m a skeptic. Looking back at media freedom developments in Central Asia, I see glimmers of reason for optimism, at least in Kyrgyzstan. But realism rooted in history shows a dim future. And skepticism teaches me to be extremely cautious about believing promises from governments and opposition alike.
So far, efforts to develop pluralistic, economically sustainable press systems have fallen far short — despite extensive, expensive efforts by local and international organizations, media companies, professionals and academics to support media institutions and press freedom. These systems aren’t identical but share commonalities that impede free expression, access to information, citizen participation, anti-corruption efforts and government transparency.
Here are some key events in each country — most, unfortunately, bad news for media rights although a few signal progress. Several involve individual journalists, but others are broader. None involve “pieces of paper” such as new laws decriminalizing libel or new regulations to expedite approval of broadcast licenses. While “pieces of paper” may reflect positive developments, they’re generally limited in actual impact – at least so far.
I’ll start with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world’s most repressitarian regimes – repressive in human rights and authoritarian in governance.
Development #1 in Uzbekistan was the 2005 Andijan massacre when troops killed at least 187 protestors, probably hundreds more. The event was so outrageously brutal that even the. Bush administration criticized it. In reaction, President Islam Karimov kicked out international media support NGOs, as well as Western journalists. That sharply limited the diversity of news reaching citizens of Uzbekistan and the amount of news about Uzbekistan reaching the rest of the world.
Development #2 is extensive censorship of websites, which became more rigorous after authorities witnessed the Internet’s impact during Arab Spring. In addition, the regime established a commission to censor Internet content. Development # 1 in Turkmenistan was the death of President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. This was a lost opportunity to advance media freedom. Less than a year later, his successor visited Columbia University, denying problems with the media: “There was never in Turkmenistan any pressure on the press.” In truth, the press remains a tightly state-controlled propaganda tool glorifying President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Development #2 came in two parts. In 2011, massive explosions hit a munitions depot near Ashgabat, killing dozens. The government shut Internet and telephone lines and released almost no information. But what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty called the “unprecedented activism of citizen journalists” provided reports and photos to the outside world.
Then last April, security forces failed to stop online distribution of an embarrassing video showing Berdymukhammedov falling from a racehorse. As EurasiaNet reported, security officers forced spectators with cameras to delete videos and photos, but some got out on social networks. Meanwhile, Turkmen State TV showed only footage of him winning an $11-million prize.
Because these incidents were so rare and although limited in scope, I consider them a positive in the context of media rights.
Development #1 in Kyrgyzstan was the assassination of Alisher Saipov, an independent journalist and human rights activist, in 2007. Saipov reported about Uzbekistan’s political and social landscape for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and Ferghana.ru and interviewed members of the banned Hizb-ut Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The government’s lack of a decisive response to the murder was evidence that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was unwilling to protect journalists — despite promises when he came to power after the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Subsequent attacks reflect a belief that people can assault journalists with impunity.
Development #2 was the June 2010 violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in the South, claiming more than 400 lives and displacing hundreds of thousands. The crisis had two major negative impacts on press freedom: One, it spurred elimination of most Uzbek-language media in that part of the country, although Internews is helping fill the gap with bilingual Uzbek and Kyrgyz broadcasting by young journalists through its Yntymak project. Two, it increased self-censorship by journalists afraid they’ll be blamed for future ethnic clashes.
Development #3 was positive: the 2010 constitutional change to a parliamentary system and President Almazbek Atambayev’s election. Together, they’ve led to overall improvement in the media environment compared to the situation under Bakiyev. I say that with full awareness of many disappointments and setbacks, including continued imprisonment of investigative reporter and human rights defender Azimjon Askarov.
Tajikistan’s Development #1 started as a positive in 2005 when President Emomali Rahmon ordered cabinet ministers, department heads and local officials to hold at least four press conferences a year. It turned negative in 2011 when he reduced mandatory news conferences to twice annually. Even those events are sometimes only information dumps where officials read reports and don’t answer questions. As the news agency Asia-Plus observed, the change “deteriorated the already difficult access to socially significant information in the country.”
Development #2 involved Urunboy Usmon, a Khojand-based BBC correspondent who was arrested in June 2011 and falsely accused of connections with Hizb-ut Tahrir. When I met Usmon, he told me, “I have no sympathy for this group. I was just doing my work. If I wrote about drug users that doesn’t mean I’m a drug user.” He spent a month in jail before pressure from OSCE, BBC and the British government led to his pre-trial release. What makes this ultimately a positive development is that Usmon was acquitted at an open, standing-room-only trial. Before that, terrorist/extremist trials were closed to the public and journalists.
In Kazakhstan, Development #1 was the rapid expansion and growth of power in the early 2000s of media oligarchs through financial-industrial groups closely tied to President Nazarbaev. Oligarchsbecame dominant economic and political forces as they bought or otherwise gained control over much of the print and electronic media, concentrating ownership of much of the non-state media market. Their news outlets generally avoid stories that might anger with the government, but one expert observed, “When it has served the interests of their owners and the president, mainstream coverage has expanded to include subjects that are normally restricted to the small opposition press.”
Development #2 was the violently suppressed 2011 oil workers’ strike in the West. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported, “Authorities launched a fierce crackdown against the media after the clashes, and renewed the battle around the first anniversary of their reporting on the violence.” As a result, the government blocked and closed two independent newspapers broadcasters K-Plus and Stan.kz “on fabricated charges of extremism.” Stan.kz, an Internet broadcaster critical of government officials, was forced to close earlier this year. The founder of Stan.kz’s parent company said authorities provided no evidence that the media violated any laws. She told CPJ, “But we were all doing our job – we reported on the facts, and interviewed people, nothing else.”
Now what three major predictions about media freedom can I — an international observer — make from these developments?
First, social media and the Internet will play an increasingly important role as suppliers of news and information unavailable from traditional media. That’s both good and bad.
On the positive side, they’ll provide more alternative venues to fill the role of traditional newspapers and broadcasters that are outlawed, censored or self-censored. They’ll allow a more diverse group of citizens to speak out on issues of public concern. And perhaps they’ll, make it easier to find information that governments want to keep secret. That’s true even as regimes block websites and social media networks.
On the negative side, most users who distribute information and opinion won’t be professional journalists committed to fair, accurate, balanced and ethical news-gathering and reporting. Instead, social media and the Internet may spread more gossip, rumor and misinformation. The digital divide is another negative because rural residents and the poor have less access to new, affordable communication technologies than city residents and the financially better-off. A third negative is regimes’ ability to abuse social media to spread propaganda and monitor opposition and civil society groups.
My second prediction: Journalists and media owners will continue to struggle economically, especially those affiliated with independent media. Two main reasons are limited revenue from advertising and circulation and the end of subsidies from international organizations. That will discourage qualified journalists from staying in the profession, and even those who stay won’t have enough resources to cover important news in depth. Meanwhile, I expect governments, parties, individual politicians and elites to continue to own, control, subsidize and influence traditional media.
My third prediction is that the work of international and local press rights defender and media development organizations will remain essential. Despite obstacles from authorities, they’ll monitor the media freedom environment, support training of journalists and students, promote collaboration across borders, go to court to represent journalists and pressure officials to respect press freedom. However, these organizations will face additional difficulties beyond hostile authorities. One is economic: the cost of operating in Central Asia while journalists elsewhere desperately need support too. Another goes to the heart of their media freedom mission. The growth of social media raises the question of how we define journalists. Will these organizations defend bloggers, citizen journalists and opposition tweeters who are arrested and jailed? Will they train bloggers and citizen activists? If so, will that weaken their capacity to serve traditional professionals.
I’m an optimist and a realist. When I returned from Central Asia for the first time in 2002 — after teaching journalism in Tashkent for four months — I talked with a career U.S. diplomat who asked what I’d do to “fix” Uzbekistan’s press system. I replied that I would have had a better answer before I spent time there. Since then, I’ve returned often to conduct trainings, interview journalists and press rights advocates, lecture and work with colleagues at American University of Central Asia. I still have no solution, but I acknowledge that Western-style models cannot be transplanted intact to any country. Media freedom will evolve unevenly in each country. And each must determine its own media destiny based on realities of its history, culture, economy, politics, available technologies, public trust and degree of citizen engagement.But as an optimist, I hope all five systems eventually will demonstrate a commitment to independent journalism and to what I believe should be universal professional standards of fairness, balance, accuracy and ethical conduct.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Freedman is associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University and works with American University of Central Asia faculty through the Open Society Foundations’ Academic Fellowship Program. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Uzbekistan and Lithuania. This column is adapted from his June 27 remarks at the annual conference on Central Asia Media in Bishkek, sponsored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media.