For many Europeans, Central Asia is still terra incognita. When one of the five former Soviet republics does make the headlines in the Western press, it is usually when something tragic happens, such as the bloody mass unrest in Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2022. Those interested can find out more about the Central Asian republics in their own press. But what are the conditions like for media professionals in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan?
Once the model student in terms of press freedom and – at least in the view of the West – the only democracy in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has taken a precarious turn in recent years. Although the small republic was ranked 72nd in the 2022 rating of Reporters Without Borders-a much higher level of freedom than the other Central Asian states-it is said to have “recognizable problems.“
This is also confirmed by media professionals on the ground. Freedom of the press is the last bastion of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, which those in power are purposefully and consistently trying to destroy in order to maintain their own power, says Kyrgyz journalist Azat Ruziev. The state leadership prefers to intimidate its critics rather than listen to them, always feels it is in the right and is unwilling to listen to other points of view. This has happened under every president, and the current president is no exception; if anything, he is even more radical than his predecessors.
Sadyr Dzhaparov has been president of the Kyrgyz Republic since January 2021. This was preceded by violent mass unrest in October 2020, during which his supporters freed him from prison, where he was serving a sentence of 11 years and six months for organizing mass unrest and taking hostages. Dzhaparov and the chairman of the Committee for State Security, Kamchibek Tashiyev, are sacred figures in the regime, which has been classified as “authoritarian” by international organizations since 2021, who should not be criticized in any way, according to Kloop‘s journalist.
To silence any critics, they would be threatened, arrested, expelled from the country. The websites of unwelcome media such as the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Liberty are blocked. In addition, there would be hacker attacks and paid demonstrations, either with the knowledge of the president or on his orders. “If the powerful had nothing to hide, they could show their openness. But instead, all that comes is threats, intimidation, public arrests, foisting drugs, blackmail with sex videos, and similar things,” Azat Ruziev states. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the entire post-Soviet space that has sentenced a journalist and human rights activist to life imprisonment.
Kazakhstan: Silenced by bullying or money
In the other four Central Asian republics, press freedom is even worse. Although Kazakhstan improved slightly in Reporters Without Borders’ rating, ranking 122nd in 2022, its handling of the initially peaceful protests in January 2022, which turned into bloody mass unrest, was a vivid example of the repressive methods used by the state to respond to unwelcome events. All available instruments were used: Arrests, attacks, the use of firearms, torture, and the shutting down of mobile phone networks and the Internet. For days, people were almost completely cut off from each other and from the outside world.
The population received selected information about what was happening in the country from state television. According to official figures from the Ministry of the Interior, 18 journalists were among those arrested, but their number was probably higher in reality. Charges were brought against six of them, and twelve were released. Some of them experienced physical violence in the process. But it is not only in a state of emergency like this that the Kazakh state exercises strong control over what information is released to the public.
According to analyses by the organization Freedom House, most of the media is controlled by the state; independent media are rare. In addition, journalists’ questions at press conferences are censored, and commercial media are not infrequently paid by the state to disseminate state propaganda. Comparatively prosperous Kazakhstan provides $150 million annually for the “promotion” of the media, and this figure is rising. Thus, there has been no significant improvement in the area of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, as some had hoped under Nazarbayev’s successor Qassym Shomart Tokayev.
Tajikistan: Press suppressed, people get news from social media
Tajikistan ranks 152nd in the Reporters Without Borders rating. Although this is an improvement of ten ranks compared to 2021, the state still exercises a high degree of control. For example, websites, news portals and social networks are regularly blocked, and large areas of the Internet and mobile phone networks are shut down to suppress criticism of the state. Independent media outlets are closed, and the few independent journalists are persecuted and intimidated. Faced with growing censorship and self-censorship in the media, the population is increasingly turning to social networks instead of the press for information. “The media are trying to avoid current affairs,” says Marat Mamadzhoev, editor-in-chief of Cabar.asia in Tajikistan. “They are forbidden to write about anything. While in the past they could somehow counteract it, fight it, nowadays they have just given up. The situation is very bad, unfortunately.” The overall situation is also rated as “difficult” in the Reporters Without Borders rating.
Uzbekistan: Not free and worse in economy
Neighboring Uzbekistan fares somewhat better. With an improvement of 24 ranks over the previous year, it ranked 133rd in 2022. But here, too, most media are controlled by the state, and private media hold back on criticizing state structures for fear of being shut down otherwise. According to Reporters Without Borders, there are only about fifteen media houses that provide quality reporting, with some of them, such as the Fergana news agency, are based abroad. Many independent media outlets have been closed or blocked during Islam Karimov’s presidency. In addition to state control, it is the lack of financial resources that poses major problems for media houses and makes journalism as a profession unattractive.
Turkmenistan: The situation is so serious, even Facebook is banned!
“Very serious” is the situation in Turkmenistan, according to Reporters Without Borders. Only Iran, Eritrea and North Korea fared worse in 2022. Facebook, Twitter, the Russian Facebook counterpart Vkontakte, YouTube, and all independent media are blocked in Turkmenistan. As one Turkmen journalist writes, the existing press in Turkmenistan fulfills solely the function of a state propaganda organ.
The government’s successes are praised, and recordings of festive openings by the president are disseminated. There is no bad news. Young journalists are trained to do just that, and not to represent the interests of the population or to criticize the government. As a de facto state organ, the press is also in close contact with power. Those who stand out as particularly useful can hope to make a career for themselves. Why should one expose oneself to the danger of being banned or imprisoned – or worse – for one’s journalistic activities? Nevertheless, a few Turkmen are brave enough to report on the country’s grievances for foreign media outlets such as Radio Free Liberty’s Turkmen branch, Radio Azatlyk. For the most part, these are not professional journalists, but activists and citizen journalists. This does not make their efforts any less courageous, but it does affect the quality of their reporting. A differentiated picture of what is actually happening in the isolated country is therefore not possible.
Because of the constant danger to life and limb, these citizen journalists work in secret and use pseudonyms. Those who do get into the secret services’ net are tried on false charges and sentenced to long prison terms. Not infrequently, journalists are subjected to physical and psychological pressure. And some disappear without a trace or die under unexplained circumstances, like Annamurad Bugayev, a reporter for Radio Azatlyk. Even ordinary citizens who have spoken to the foreign media, using their real names, about grievances in the country are not seldem the target of state repression. Under Serdar Berdimuhamedov, who succeeded his father as president of Turkmenistan in 2022, one need not hope for any positive changes in terms of press freedom; on the contrary.
Despite improvements in Reporters Without Borders’ rating, press freedom throughout the region remains at a deplorably poor level. In a panel of experts at Cabar.asia, participants therefore called on politicians in the republics to work to strengthen an independent press, which they consider a basic prerequisite for democracy. In their view, the media throughout the region must move closer together to collectively protect their interests. They should also strive for financial independence and support new and promising media projects. Last but not least, the Central Asian media should learn from countries where such a strengthening of press freedom has been achieved under similar conditions.
* Ilona Pfeffer is a Media Expert | Humanitarian Journalism Trainer | Journalist