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Reporting From Central Asia -- A Hard Job And Getting Harder

RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Soltan Achilova showings bruises suffered during a late-October attack in Ashgabat.
RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Soltan Achilova showings bruises suffered during a late-October attack in Ashgabat.

It's never been easy being a journalist in Central Asia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Reporting from Central Asia can lead to dire consequences: assaults, arrests, imprisonment, and, on occasion, even death.

That has been generally true for 25 years, but recently it has become even worse. How much worse was the subject of the latest Majlis podcast organized by RFE/RL (listen below).

Moderating from Washington was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Almaty, German freelance correspondent Edda Schlager joined the discussion. She's been working in Central Asia for more than a decade and had quite a story to tell. Our friend Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch, participated from the United States. I’ve not only been following events with journalists in Central Asia for some years, I’ve had firsthand experience with being on site trying to cover the region, so I had a few things to say also.

The Majlis opened with Schlager recalling her recent experience in Uzbekistan. Schlager was in Uzbekistan at the start of November to cover, as she said, "the atmosphere of the country" ahead of the December 4 presidential election, the first such election since the death of Uzbekistan's only president, Islam Karimov, a couple of months ago.

Schlager was detained on November 10, about one week after she arrived in Uzbekistan.

She said four men came to the hotel where she was staying at around 7 a.m. one morning. "First, I was called by the receptionist to come out because the authorities were there to check my documents," Schlager recalled.

Schlager was taken to a police station, where she spent the entire day, but she pointed out that the people who were holding her treated her kindly. She had telephoned friends before she was taken from the hotel. "To my surprise, I could keep my smartphone," she said, so she was able to maintain contact with people she knew in Uzbekistan and in Germany.

"In the afternoon, the Germany Embassy managed to send me someone, the counsel together with a translator of the embassy, and they got me out," Schlager explained. But she was ordered to leave the country.

As Swerdlow noted, "It’s the first deportation of an international journalist since the interim president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has been installed in power, and it shows that it's business as usual in Uzbekistan for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of the media."

The situation is just as bad, or possibly even worse, in Turkmenistan. In late October, RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova, 67, was taking photographs of the long lines outside state stores, where people were waiting for their chance to purchase basic goods -- sugar, cooking oil, flour, and such.

Police brought her in for questioning. After she left the police station, she was assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants, who took her camera. She was attacked again at a medical facility where she was receiving treatment in November.

Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.
Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.

Another RFE/RL correspondent, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, has been in prison for more than a year after he was found photographing expensive buildings in the Awaza resort area on the Caspian Sea and was subsequently convicted on narcotics charges.

Swerdlow spoke about the situation in Tajikistan where "Tojnews and Nigoh…very important outlets" -- an independent website and newspaper, respectively -- were closed in November. Both cited a lack of "necessary conditions for working" as the reason they were closing. This comes after the Eurasia Net website recently reported about journalists leaving the profession, or the country, due to problems.

Kazakhstan, where the situation has been relatively better than in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, has also seen incidents involving top people at media outlets. Bigeldy Gabdullin, the chief editor of the newspaper Central Asia Monitor and also the publisher of the website, was detained in November on suspicion of extortion.

Kazakhstan's anticorruption agency said Gabdullin published "negative material, which defamed the business reputation" of certain individuals, then demanded money to cease publishing such articles.

According to the anticorruption agency, these individuals arranged for Gabdullin to receive state funding for Central Asia Monitor and Schlager said, "In Kazakhstan, as in other countries, you have the practice that the government is paying media for covering stories, obviously in a positive way, and in connection with this practice he was arrested because he was accused of corruption."

Gabdullin has not commented publicly yet on these charges.

But his case comes after Seitkazy Mataev, the president of Kazakhstan's Union of Journalists and also the owner and founder of the National Press Club and the KazTAG news agency, and his son Aset, who is general director at KazTAG, were convicted on October 3 of fraud and tax evasion. Mataev was sentenced to six years in prison, his son to five years, and they were fined more than $1.5 million, including seizure of their personal property.

Seitkazy has denied the charges against him and his son. Kazakh political analyst and opposition figure Amirzhan Kosanov described the legal process against the Mataevs as "a demonstration that [the authorities] wanted to give to free journalism, to show, with the Mataevs as an example, that they can deal with anybody, even a person of such a high caliber, who was [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev’s first press secretary and a person who was strongly loyal to the president and that was never in the opposition."

And even in Kyrgyzstan, where there has always been an independent media -- albeit at times an embattled independent media -- there was a warning recently.

In early November, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev warned the media about publishing "misleading" information.

The word "misleading," when spoken by top officials in Central Asia, has as often as not meant information that runs contrary to the government's narrative. So it is a red-flag word.

Kyrgyzstan is about to conduct a national referendum on controversial amendments to the country's constitution, amendments that Atambaev has supported. Kyrgyzstan will also conduct a presidential election next year, to choose Atambaev's successor.

The Majlis podcast discussed these issues and others in great detail, plus Schlager gave a much fuller description of her recent trip to -- and deportation from -- Uzbekistan.

Majlis Podcast: The Cost Of Reporting From Central Asia
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.