The media situation in Central Asia, generally, has been bad for many years now.
But, according to recent reports by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and New York-based group Freedom House, the situation with media in Central Asia actually got even worse in 2016.
It was not only the "usual" Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- that received low marks in the two groups' annual reports. The lowered ratings for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and even Kyrgyzstan indicated that all three were increasing pressure on nonstate sources of information.
What just happened and why? Is this a new trend in Central Asia -- policies that strangle independent media?
To try to answer these questions and look at other aspects of government moves against the news organizations and the Internet, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss events concerning the media in Central Asia in recent months.
Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL's Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. We were fortunate to have people who played key roles in preparing the two reports mentioned above. From Paris, the Majlis was joined by Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. And the project director of Freedom House's annual rights report Nations In Transit, Nate Schenkkan took part from New York (Nate also hosts the Central Asianist podcast, which we at the Majlis highly recommend to everyone]. I have a connection to media in Central Asia, so I participated also.
Bihr started the discussion out by noting that "the situation with press freedom across all Central Asia in general has further deteriorated."
The situation for media in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan has worsened significantly.
The Majlis session came the day after it was reported that 20 journalists had fled Tajikistan recently to escape the government's tightening grip on media.
Bihr spoke about the "increasing habit of trying to control the Internet across Central Asia" and recalled, "In May last year, when Kazakhstan was marked by huge protests, the authorities were quick to make Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, WhatsApp, etc. unavailable, which obviously prevented the free flow of information."
"Such kind of 'progress' also has been made in Tajikistan," he added.
Schenkkan said, "We actually see kind of a mixed strategy in [Central Asian] countries, particularly in Kazakhstan I would say, where defamation and libel suits have had a role for quite a while, in addition to some of those more aggressive tactics… like imprisonment."
Bihr saw a key similarity in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan that might partially explain why those two countries have recently been putting so much pressure on nonstate media. "Both in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan we can say that aging leaders are in power and succession wars have already started behind the curtains, this is clearly a factor of stress for the political life and press freedom in these countries."
Libel, Defamation Suits
Using the court system to shut down media that is critical of the authorities is nothing new. Schenkkan spoke about some of the independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that are "constantly subject to different kinds of libel and defamation suits."
And Schenkkan said, "I think [Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek] Atambaev is picking up on that."
More than a dozen lawsuits have been initiated against independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan recently.
According to Bihr, "the increasingly defiant speech of President Atambaev in Kyrgyzstan has been very worrying with very harsh words being pronounced [against journalists and media outlets]."
Both Bihr and Schenkkan pointed out the leadership change in Uzbekistan offers some small hope for an improvement in that country.
"The replacement of President [Islam] Karimov by President [Shavkat] Mirziyaev in Uzbekistan indeed raises hopes due to what appears to be increased pragmatism of the regime," Bihr explained.
Schenkkan agreed "there's been this wave of expectations after Karimov's death in August and a lot of attention to whether there could be some kind of thaw in Uzbekistan."
But they said Uzbekistan remained near the bottom of these most recent rankings by both their organizations, because their recent reports dealt with events during 2016.
Encouraging signs such as the release from prison of Uzbek independent journalist Muhammad Bekjonov, one of the longest imprisoned journalists in the world, in late February this year were not factored into the RSF and Freedom House reports that have just been issued.
Lack Of Leverage
Turkmenistan also stayed near the bottom of both lists, but there was no room for optimism from any of the panelists that the media situation could improve there.
Schenkkan said the very sparse information that can be gleaned from Turkmenistan kept that country from being at the very bottom of the Freedom House rankings. "You have a hundred-point scale," Schenkkan said, and added "we're at 98 on Turkmenistan right now."
The possibilities for convincing governments in Central Asia to ease their media policies are limited. "There are not so many powers that have some leverage on Central Asian countries," Bihr said.
Bihr noted, "The European Union… is continuing talks with Kazakhstan, for instance, about enhanced partnership agreements despite the fact the previous partnership agreement included some clear human rights conditions that were never fulfilled by Kazakhstan."
In the United States, President Donald Trump's administration has so far not sent any strong signals that it would press Central Asian governments on rights issues.
Schenkkan said, "I think there's no question but that the leaders in the [Central Asian] region have decided that they can go after the press pretty much as hard as they want and that there's practically no consequences, and that includes internationally."
Schenkkan added that Central Asian governments should be cautious in their treatment of independent media. Having only state media carries inherent risks for governments such as those in Central Asia.
"They [the Central Asian governments] still can't hide what's happening in terms of economics, in terms of politics," Schenkkan explained, and warned "it's dangerous for there to grow too large a gap between what you tell people [is] happening and what's actually happening."
The Majlis panelists had much more to say on these topics and other matters concerning the plight of the media in Central Asia.
An audio recording of the session can be heard here:
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.