The stans: Media in Chains

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The stans: Media in Chains

Human rights concerns in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan came sharply into focus recently, exposed by the Eurovision Contest held in the capital Baku. Most of the former Soviet states do not boast an impressive human rights record, and things are not any better east of Baku, in the Central Asian stans.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, 15 new independent states emerged. The Baltic States (simply called the Baltics) of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia re-established themselves as independent nations, whereas Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the five stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan became new state formations, often with weak track records as independent states.

The habitual crackdown on the media in the stans and the former Soviet Union goes back a long way. Lists of the biggest media violators are produced annually by various independent organisations working to protect media freedom and journalists, such as Freedom House, an independent American think tank that produces annual indexes for political rights and civil liberties, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) or Reporters Without Borders (RSF), to name just a few. In 2006, the CPJ produced a list of ‘the 10 Most Censored Countries’, in which two stans – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan still rank high. The other ‘runner-up’ was Belarus. Freedom House’s findings from 2009 seem to confirm this: ‘[o]f the 196 countries and territories … 3 of the 10 worst press-freedom abusers — Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — are found in the former Soviet Union’. The Annual Report on Human Rights by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has repeatedly found four former Soviet republics – the aforesaid stans, Belarus and Russia – Countries of Concern. In addition, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are included in The Enemies of the Internet list of 2010 compiled by the RSF.

So what is the media freedom situation on the ground? Uzbekistan is known for the absence of independent press and for frequent imprisonment of journalists. In 2011, Freedom House assessed the media landscape in Tajikistan as ‘dire’, with journalists often prosecuted for defamation and harassed by the government.  According to CPJ, Kazakhstan’s ‘achievements’ comprise assaults on journalists, politicized lawsuits and newspaper confiscations, whereas censorship on foreign news coverage abides in Kyrgyzstan – otherwise the most liberal Central Asian stan. Turkmenistan, for its part, is usually outdone only by North Korea in Freedom House’s annual index Freedom of the Press for its oppressive regulatory systems.

According to the CPJ, these systems can have different forms ranging from websites blocking, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, and the absence of privately owned or independent media, to security service monitoring of journalists, jamming of foreign broadcasts and blocking of foreign correspondents.

Sending the messengers of free speech – journalists and human rights defenders to prison on trumped-up charges is a common practice in the stans. Usually, a forthcoming election is an indicator of the country’s media landscape, and a good excuse to resort to old practices. For instance, according to Human Rights Watch, in Uzbekistan some 14 human rights defenders are held in prison on politically motivated charges ‘for no reason other than their legitimate human rights work’, including a political dissident Yusuf Jumaev who served a three-year prison sentence after calling for President Karimov’s resignation before the presidential election in December 2007. Only in March this year, in Tajikistan, the smallest and poorest former Soviet stan where this writer is based, the state-owned communication service blocked local access to Facebook and two Russian websites that published an article ‘Tajikistan on the eve of a revolution’ criticising President Emonali Rakhmon before he stands for the election next year.

The celebrated freedom of expression might be a cornerstone of democracy, but the stans  often seem oblivious to it, simply because there is no tradition of democracy here. Although a crackdown on freedom of expression is not unique to the stans, all the ‘unfree’ countries share the same problem: authoritarian rule, whereby democratic values take the back seat when big players are brought to the table.  Giving the OSCE chairmanship to Kazakhstan in 2010 – a country where according to  Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe ‘the opposition has been hamstrung, the media silenced, and civil society given a polite but insignificant role’ came as no surprise then. Freedom House found that this move ‘was a result of member states’ efforts to avoid a split within the organization and recognition of [Kazakhstan’s] enormous hydrocarbon potential’.

The uncomfortable truth is that in this uncertain economic climate freedom of expression might already be playing second – or even third  fiddle to economic stability.  Anyway, Freedom House has recently found that incredibly

[o]nly 17 percent of the world’s citizens live in countries that enjoy a free press. In the rest of the world, governments as well as non-state actors control the viewpoints that reach citizens and brutally repress independent voices.

So what does the future hold for media freedom in the stans where the crackdown on free media is growing rather than fading?