It has been almost a quarter of a century since the Soviet Union dissolved and five newly independent and sovereign Central Asian states came into existence. It is, hence, a good time to look back into the history of the growth and development of these post-Soviet societies, particularly the level of freedom that exists in these. This will further help understand the level of freedom the media enjoys in this region.
The states which together form the Central Asian region include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All these states, even after independence from the Soviet Union did not shed the political structures that were laid in the 70 years when they were a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
These post-soviet states carried a certain legacy in terms of their functioning and the way the political class dealt with its citizenry. Since the leaders of these ‘new states’ were part of the communist party that had a distinct political structure in the erstwhile USSR, they carried forward the Soviet way of dealing with people.
A muzzled press
Central Asia, in many ways, has been the barometer of authoritarian clampdown on the press all over the world.
The first quarter-century of post-Soviet independence in Central Asia was, by certain metrics, worse than even the USSR’s waning days. Journalists were harassed, kidnapped, and murdered. State capture of both television and print outlets was common. Laws that effectively silenced opposition members and non-state press alike were passed, allowing regimes in Astana, Dushanbe, Tashkent, and Ashgabat to survive.
A country-by-country look at the state of press freedom in this inconspicuous region reveals more about a repressive post-Soviet culture.
The situation of Press Freedom in Kazakhstan is awful. This has been reflected year after year in the Freedom of Press’ reports released by Freedom House (FH), an international body which comes with this report since 1980.
The FH 2017 report on Kazakhstan places it as ‘Not Free’. According to the quick fact data sheet, the ‘Press Freedom Score’ of Kazakhstan for the year 2017 is 85/100, where 100 depicts the worst-case scenario.
Under the ‘Political Environment’ column, Kazakhstan is given a score of 34/40. This has been reflected in the Press Freedom Score as well, largely because the political environment in any society has a direct correlation with the degree of press freedom. The dismal situation is also reflected in the legal environment of the country, which is interlinked with the freedom of speech. Under that column, Kazakhstan scored 28/30.
The report says in its overview:
“The Kazakh government continued its steady repression of the media in 2015, as economic uncertainty grew and the country held a presidential vote in April. Although the government passed a long-awaited freedom of information law, it remained to be seen how the legislation would be implemented in practice. Meanwhile, a new law against the spreading of false information was used to detain and prosecute journalists in retaliation for their work.”
On key developments on the issue, the report says:
“The editor and owner of Nakanune.kz, an independent news website, was among 18 people charged with spreading false information during 2015; the magazine ADAM was shut down in October based on an alleged violation of the terms of its registration; Authorities blocked a number of online news sources during 2015, in some cases to suppress information about the Syria-based Islamic State (IS) militant group.”
On the legal environment, the report mentions in detail about the constitutional guarantees pertaining to press freedom in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press, but the government severely restricts these rights in practice. Defamation is a criminal offense in the country and those who indulge in defaming the president, members of Parliament, and other state officials face specific bans. Those found spreading false information are fined or are sent up to 10 years in prison. This provision took effect in January 2015 under the amendments of the country’s criminal code.
The internet penetration rate as mentioned in the report is 54.9%. This gives a fair idea about the penetration of social media in the overall media space of the country. Interestingly, in 2015, The Guardian carried a report by a Moscow Times correspondent on press freedom in Kazakhstan. It said:
“this is a disturbing shift for a country that enjoyed some semblance of independent, if relatively constrained, media through the first two decades of president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule and in last four years Kazakhstan’s independent media scene has shrunk from a stable, if small, coterie, to one on life support. Outlet upon outlet, from newspapers to television, including Respublika, Vzglyad, Stan TV have disappeared, with authorities citing connections to foreign bogeymen as the reason for their demise.”
It is really another matter that the Russian media is itself accused of biased reporting. The 2017 FH Report gave nearly the same score to Russia in press freedom, political, and legal environments.
The FH Press Freedom Report 2017 broadly puts Kyrgyzstan in the ‘Not Free’ category. However, in the ‘Net Freedom Status’ and ‘Freedom in the World Status’, it is categorised as ‘Partly Free’. In scored 27/40 and 20/30 in the political and legal environment categories, respectively.
These scores reflect well in the overall Press Freedom Score of Kyrgyzstan (67/100), which is comparatively far better than any another Central Asian country.
The relatively freer press landscape in Kyrgyzstan can be attributed to the political structure in the country. Also referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’, the country got independence, like other Central Asian states, in 1991. Article 16 of the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan presents a liberal view with respect to freedom of speech and expression. It says
“Everyone in the Kyrgyz Republic has the right to the free expression and dissemination of thoughts, ideas, and opinions and to free literary, artistic scientific and technical creativity, and freedom of the press and to broadcast and disseminates information.”
The Kyrgyz legislation was enacted into law on 2 July 1992. It offers a number of legal safeguards that prevent the government from arbitrary infringement on the rights of the journalists. There are also provisions that prohibit the banning of publications without proper legal procedures. Article 13, for instance, stipulates that a pause or complete prohibition of dissemination of information of the mass media can only be decided in court. The Kyrgyz law permits its citizens to establish mass media organizations.
According to the profile of Kyrgyz media created by countrystudies.us:
“For the first two years of independence, Kyrgyzstan’s newspapers were a remarkable phenomenon, with real political significance and power. Save that Kyrgyzstan’s newspapers had not yet developed a Western-style code of journalistic scrupulousness and restraint; it would have been possible to say that the press was beginning to become the fourth estate that the media represent in developed democracies.”
This remarkable period of Kyrgyz journalism couldn’t continue its forward momentum in years to come. The government started pressurising the local press, eventually closing three newspapers entirely, which included the popular Russian-language Svobodny gory, the official organ of the parliament.
Government officials also began to bring suits against newspapers as private individuals, claiming defamation and slander. In 1994, the Kyrgyz populace began to feel threatened by the government and other forces in the republic. The atmosphere was charged with a series of unexplained attacks on journalists.
Though, the Kyrgyz government showed reluctance to impose direct Soviet-style censorship, the then President of the country, Askar Akayev, warned in January 1995 that the press would be wise to begin practicing self-censorship and print more positive news. The situation continued to deteriorate in the coming years.
The 2016 Press Freedom Report on Kyrgyzstan, in its overview, opined that
“despite some openings over the past decade, Kyrgyzstan’s media environment remains constrained by restrictive laws, political influence, and limited diversity. Courts often levy excessive administrative punishments on articles critical of authorities, and public media appear to be increasingly used for political ends. Access to diverse sources of news and information, particularly to Uzbek-language media, continues to be a challenge.”
Reporting on the key developments on the issue of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan, the report says:
“In December 2015, Dayirbek Orunbekov, chief editor of the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Maalymat, received a 2 million Kyrgyz som ($26,000) fine after a regional court found him guilty of insulting the honor and dignity of President Almazbek Atambayev.”
The report further points out that
“the journalistic community in Kyrgyzstan and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the verdict, finding the penalty excessive and the case politically motivated. Another journalist, Uran Bolotbekov, received a similar fine in July for insulting the honor and dignity of Ikramzhan Ilmiyanov, Atambayev’s close advisor and former driver. In December, two leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) noted these cases as evidence of unprecedented government pressure on journalists.”
Under the political environment column, the report has categorically mentioned that media in Kyrgyzstan is subject to editorial pressure from private owners or the authorities, as well as a lack of diversity with respect to language and viewpoints.
A 2010 law converted state media into a public-service broadcaster – the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation (KTRK). Its 15-member supervisory board is composed of media experts, journalists, cultural figures, and civil society representatives; the president, the parliament, and civil society, each nominate five members.
The parliament has the power to approve the five members nominated by civil society and to dissolve the board if its performance is unsatisfactory. The internet penetration rate in the country is just 28.3%.
It would be fair to say that Press Freedom in the country has had a roller-coaster ride since Kyrgyzstan got independence. Yet, the situation better than its southern neighbour, Tajikistan.
The 2017 FH report put Tajikistan under the ‘Not Free’ category. Even in the category of ‘Freedom in the World’ status, Tajikistan is classified as ‘Not Free’, with a dismal press freedom score of 87/100. It scored 33/40 and 28/30 in the political and legal environment categories, respectively. Internet penetration rate in the country lies abysmally low at 19%.
Radio Free Europe, in one of its report, said about Tajikistan:
“independent media outlets in Tajikistan say it has become difficult for them to interview officials following a new government directive instructing officials to make the state news agency their first choice of channels for giving information to the press. Editors of independent outlets say that the directive already has had a chilling effect on officials who once spoke with them. The result could be a further shrinking of the already small space for independent journalists to operate in Tajikistan, where government monitoring and censorship have long been the rule”
In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, Umed Babakhanov, head of Tajikistan’s independent Asia Plus media company said:
“if all official information goes through one channel, ordinary people will get less news about the government’s activities. That will raise confusion and create a growing gap between the authorities and society.”
The FH 2016 Freedom of Press Report on the country says in its overview:
“the government there uses restrictive laws, politicised regulation, and extra-legal intimidation to curb independent reporting. During the period surrounding parliamentary elections in March 2015, authorities barred journalists from polling places, and state-controlled media denied the opposition access to airtime.”
In the recent past, the government ordered the temporary blocking of Facebook and other popular social-networking sites in May, apparently to suppress news about a Tajik police commander who had joined the Islamic State militant group in Syria. In August, independent journalist Aminjon Gulmurodzoda was sentenced to two years in prison based on claims that he had falsified identity documents as a child in 1989.
Article 30 of The Tajik Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. A 2013 Tajik media law contains a number of protections for media workers, broadens the definition and rights of a journalist, attempts to limit the formation of media monopolies, and guarantees access to public information. The provision strengthened Tajikistan’s existing access to information by reducing the deadline for officials to respond to a request from one month to three days. However, the law is poorly structured, little known by the public, and virtually ignored by officials.
The FH 2017 report classifies Turkmenistan as ‘Not Free’. With a ‘Press Freedom Score’ of 98/100, the situation appears extremely bad. Evidently, Turkmenistan is dangerously close to becoming the worst possible state in terms of freedom of the press.
The Human Rights Watch, in its 2017 country report on Turkmenistan, said:
“Turkmenistan is among the world’s most repressive and closed countries, where the president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life. A new draft constitution approved in 2016 allows lifetime presidency. The government ruthlessly punishes any alternative political or religious expression and exerts total control over access to information. Independent critics and their families, including in exile, face constant threat of government reprisal. Authorities continue to impose informal and arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents, and others. Dozens of people remain forcibly disappeared presumably in Turkmen prisons.”
In its 2016 report on the country, FH says that “Although the 2013 media law banned press monopolies and censorship, freedom of the press is severely constrained by the government, which controls nearly all broadcast and print media. In April 2015, the government announced its decision to eliminate the use of private satellite dishes—a move seemingly intended to limit access to Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)”.
The internet penetration rate is drastically low at 15%. Turkmenistan’s main internet service provider is run by the government and restricts access, including by blocking undesirable websites and monitoring user activity. The government mandated obligatory internet access for educational, scholarly, and cultural institutions in 2014.
Many human rights groups have accused the government of detaining and torturing journalists who do not toe the government’s line. Very few independent and foreign reporters operate from Tajikistan now. Journalists are increasingly being threatened and jailed on false charges.
For example, one journalist, Osmankuly Hallyev, was forced to resign from Radio Azatlyk in June 2015 after police threatened to jail him if he did not end his affiliation with the outlet. Hallyev’s family members faced job dismissals and harassment by police due to his work. Another example is of photojournalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliyev, who reported for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the opposition-minded Alternative Turkmenistan News on social issues, health care, and corruption, was arrested in July for allegedly possessing illegal medication. He was being held incommunicado at year’s end.
In an article for The Diplomat magazine in 2015, Scottish researcher, Bradley Jardine, wrote:
“the evolution of Turkmenistan’s autocratic, post-Soviet regime has involved a substantial centralization of the national media. Since its first edition in 2002, the annual Press Freedom Index from the Paris-based NGO Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) has regularly ranked the regime as one of the most serious offenders. In addition, Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press Index ranked Turkmenistan 197th out of the 199 countries surveyed.”
He further wrote:
“According to article 28 of the 2008 constitutional draft – a revision of the 1992 constitution – “Citizens of Turkmenistan have the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as to receive information if it is not a state or other secret protected by law.” Both Saparmurat Niyazov, and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, have failed to provide these basic human rights.”
Clearly, Turkmenistan is one of the worst countries for journalists, perhaps only better than North Korea.
FH has ranked Uzbekistan as ‘Not Free’ year after year. In the 2017 report, the country’s ‘Press Freedom Score’ is a worrying 95/100. In the legal environment category, the country has reached the rock bottom by scoring 30/30, where 30 depicts the worst-case scenario.
Under ‘Political and Economic Environment’, the country’s score is 37/40 and 28/30 respectively. The 2017 report, in its overview, says:
“Uzbekistan’s government continued to show a blatant disregard for constitutional provisions during 2015, leaving freedom of expression and freedom of the press virtually non-existent in the country. While some journalists and activists were released from prison, others were detained and beaten for documenting taboo subjects. Social media remain a viable outlet for public dissent, but the security apparatus is becoming savvier at blocking proxy servers and other tools used to access banned websites and mobile applications.”
In the recent past, three prominent human rights activists were detained and in two cases, physically abused for attempting to photograph or otherwise document the country’s cotton harvest, in which the state compels citizens to engage in forced labour. In May 2016, a court revoked the license of Noviy Vek, one of Uzbekistan’s oldest privately-owned newspapers, on charges of content violations.
While the Uzbek constitution provides for freedoms of expression and the press, the government shows little respect for the rule of law in practice. According to the 2016 FH report on Uzbekistan, “convictions for libel and defamation can result in fines and jail time, and publicly insulting the president is punishable by up to five years in prison. Journalists can also face legal penalties for “interference in internal affairs” and “insulting the dignity of citizens.”
As per the new laws of information enacted in September 2014, the media content restriction has been extended to blogs and other online information sources, holding bloggers liable for any content deemed extremist, inaccurate, separatist, or pornographic, among other restricted categories. Several important provisions of the law are loosely worded, allowing for broad and arbitrary interpretations.
Journalists who work for unaccredited foreign outlets or unregistered domestic outlets aren’t legally recognised as journalists and are prone to persecution. All media outlets have to register with government agencies and get their licenses, which can be denied or revoked with little explanation. Reports of corruption in the registration and licensing process have also emerged on several occasions.
The political structure of the country is heavily centralised and hence, almost all media outlets are linked to the state in some manner. The National Security Service actively manipulates press reports to present a carefully constructed image of the country, occasionally allowing limited criticism of local corruption.
Widespread self-censorship is also a serious problem, as investigative journalists fear reprisals in the form of harassment, loss of employment, beatings, or jail time. The government continues to censor or close media outlets that produce content it considers objectionable.
More often than not, we see political leaders, social elites, and governments in power constantly trying to paint a rosy picture of the freedoms available to their people. Authoritarian governments do it as a preventive project of face-saving in the international community. The Central Asian countries are perhaps the best examples of such subversive tendencies of strong states.
Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.