The media in Central Asia has effectively been under fire since the five countries there became independent in late 1991. But pressure on non-state media is always stronger when the region's governments are having a hard time, and these are hard times for Central Asia, which has been experiencing an economic downturn in recent months.
The new crackdown on journalists has been most noticeable in Kazakhstan of late, but it's also happening in other Central Asian states. To make matters worse, it seems not much can be done about it in the current circumstances.
To look at developments in the struggle of independent media to survive in Central Asia, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a Majlis, a panel discussion.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Participating from London was Katie Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia program at the journalist advocacy group Article 19. Joining the discussion from New York was Muzaffar Suleymanov, a research associate for the Europe and Central Asia program of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In RFE/RL's studio in Prague, Lyudmyla Kozlovska of the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation joined in. And since everybody else in the studio was saying something, I made some comments also.
Suleymanov summed up the situation, saying: “We can see...press freedom conditions in the entire region are downgrading, the repressions, attacks are still ongoing, it's shocking that the authorities are cracking down against the messengers."
On February 22, Kazakhstan's National Anticorruption Bureau detained Seytkazy Mataev -- the head of the country's Journalists Union for the last 15 years and also chairman of the National Press Club for the past two decades -- for allegedly embezzling about 380 million tenge (about $1.1 million at the current rate). His son Aset, the director of the independent news agency KazTag, was also briefly taken into custody before being released after questioning. An Almaty court on February 24 ordered Seytkazy Mataev placed under house arrest.
The Anticorruption Bureau is still investigating other possible violations. But Kozlovska pointed out that "financial accusations or tax accusations are quite normal and quite usual for Kazakhstan. They [the authorities] did it before, many times in the past" as a means to stop the work of independent journalists, rights activists, or political opposition figures. That's why doubts have been raised about the investigation of the Mataevs.
Seytkazy Mataev's detention came as journalist Yulia Kozlova from the independent Nakanune.kz website stands trial for possession of drugs. Nakanune.kz has written critical articles about the government and possible violations committed by Kazkommertsbank, the largest private bank in Kazakhstan. Police searched Kozlova's apartment when she was not there.
Morris said first of all, "Nakanune [doesn't] have a huge circulation and it's difficult to see what real threat they could pose to a situation in Kazakhstan. But Morris noted that Kazakhstan's authorities "tend to silence" independent media before elections. Kazakhstan is conducting early parliamentary elections on March 20 and "the threshold of tolerance is definitely getting lower and lower" in the run-up to the vote.
Kozlovska from the Open Dialog Foundation added, "There was a huge leak of information, a so-called Kazakh WikiLeaks, which was analyzed by independent journalists, especially journalists of Nakanune."
Meanwhile, Tajikistan is headed for a national referendum this May to vote on extending the term of President Emomali Rahmon, who has now been in power since 1992. Tajikistan's independent media have learned to be cautious about reporting on affairs of state and on government officials. Tajik authorities, Morris said, have subtle ways of reminding journalists. "It's the indirect investigations, it's pressure, people made to feel unsafe, made to feel that they cannot report," she said.
Tahir mentioned that a correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, is currently in jail on dubious charges of narcotics possession and it is impossible to obtain any information about his condition from Turkmen authorities. Additionally, several Azatlyk correspondents in Turkmenistan resigned last year after "conversations" with Turkmen police or state officials.
The situation in Uzbekistan is as bad as that in Turkmenistan.
And Suleymanov reminded us that, even in Kyrgyzstan, where there is an independent media, authorities fluctuate in their tolerance of the press. Turat Akimov, the chief editor of the newspaper Dengi i Vlast (Money and Power) was attacked on February 20 by an assailant who was waiting for him near his home. Akimov says he was attacked because of his reporting.
Suleymanov drew attention to the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist and activist convicted of being part of interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment, making Kyrgyzstan "the only country in the region which has sentenced a journalist and human rights activist to life in jail," Suleymanov pointed out.
There seems to be no way for outside parties to convince the Central Asian governments to ease up on or, even better, halt the harassment of independent media in the region. "We do try to engage with them [the authorities]," Suleymanov said, "but they've walled themselves off."
The panel agreed that those countries which uphold rights such as freedom of the press need to send much stronger messages to the Central Asian governments.
Suleymanov recalled that sanctions had been imposed on Uzbek officials in the past but they were gradually lifted,perhaps giving Central Asian governments the feeling that it is possible to simply wait out such penalties.
Kozlovska said sanctions should be an option for convincing Central Asia's governments of the need to respect basic rights. She said, for example, that the leaders and top officials in these countries "have properties in Europe, they love to send their children to study...in very costly universities."
The panelists discussed these and other issues in greater detail during the discussion. You can listen to the full roundtable below: