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Pakistani human rights activists hold images of some of the bloggers who have gone missing during a protest in Islamabad on January 10.

As protests and condemnations over the disappearances of liberal activists in Pakistan grow, a fifth campaigner has gone missing from a southern provincial capital.

Colleagues of Pakistani activist Samar Abbas say he is missing under unknown circumstances.

The Civil Progressive Alliance, which Abbas heads, said on January 12 that Abbas disappeared in the port city of Karachi on January 7.

Talib Raza of the Civil Progressive Alliance said Abbas's disappearance seemed to be part of "an organized attempt to shut down the progressive and liberal voices in the country."

Abbas's disappearance comes amid a spate of similar incidents in which four liberal bloggers were reported missing in several different cities between January 4 and January 7.

Pakistani media reported that social media activists Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed disappeared from Lahore, a city in eastern Pakistan on January 4. Salman Haider, an academic and blogger, was apparently abducted from a busy highway in the capital, Islamabad, on January 6. The next day, Ahmed Raza Naseer disappeared from Sheikhupura near Lahore, capital of eastern Punjab Province.

Global rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the disappearances.

A January 11 statement by Amnesty International said the four activists “have gone missing in a suspected enforced disappearance by state security forces in Pakistan.”

Amnesty International linked the disappearances to the activists’ views and work. “The activists are known for their social media activism and for expressing their views on human rights issues and state policies,” the statement said.

A January 10 statement by Human Rights Watch noted the activists were “vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the Internet to disseminate their views.”

The statement noted that the “near simultaneous disappearance” and authorities moving to shut down their websites and blogs has raised grave concerns over official involvement.

“The Pakistani government has an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety,” said the organization’s Asia director, Brad Adams. “The nature of these apparent abductions puts the Nawaz Sharif government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem.”

Pakistani Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told the parliament on January 10 that authorities are investigating the cases. “We are moving in the right direction and will recover all the four missing activists in light of the ongoing investigation,” he told the Senate, the upper house of Pakistani Parliament.

On January 9, five lawmakers from the secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) raised the issue in the parliament. "The pattern of these disappearances suggests it is a planned and coordinated action undertaken to silence voices which are critical of prevalent sociopolitical issues in Pakistan," they said in a statement to the parliament speaker.

The United Nations has expressed concern over the disappearances.

"No government should tolerate attacks on its citizens," David Kaye, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, was quoted as saying.

In scores of sizeable demonstrations across Pakistan, civil society activists and politicians have condemned the disappearances and urged Islamabad to ensure freedom of speech and expression.

Rights campaigners say Pakistan’s powerful security agencies have a long history of threatening critics, dissidents, and separatists. Pakistani and international rights watchdogs have documented hundreds of cases of torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of campaigners, journalists, and members and leaders of groups perceived to be anti-state.

Hard-line Islamist groups such as the Taliban, armed separatists, and conservative political groups frequently threaten and target journalists and activists.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Express Tribune

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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