Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Newspapers on sale in a market in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat. (Photo: IWPR)
The leaders of the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan like talking about media freedom, and now and then they ask journalists to come out and criticise them. With so many reporters languishing in jail and censorship as dark a presence as in the Soviet era, no one is fooled.
This January, a new law came into force in Turkmenistan guaranteeing citizens the right to express their views and access information in the media. It outlawed censorship, state interference in the media, and monopoly ownership. As a piece of legislation, it was unusual in two ways – the liberties and prohibitions contained in it neatly sum up, in reverse, the realities of a state-controlled, censored media environment. And secondly, no one believes any of it will be enforced. (See Turkmen Media Law Work of Fiction for more.)
“Passing this law has done nothing to change things in the media,” a local journalist who asked not to be named said. “Everything is under tight scrutiny by the president and by National Security Ministry officers. State censorship continues to be exercised by the Committee for Protecting State Secrets in Print and Other Media.”
A media-watcher in the capital Ashgabat agreed that the legislation had not had any effect.
“There’s the same strict censorship and total control of the media. There is also an information blockade – magazines and newspapers from Russia as well as subscriptions to foreign media are banned,” he said.
In neighbouring Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov habitually urges journalists to be more critical of shortcomings in government.
As one local reporter put it, “Despite these official calls from President Karimov for the state media to carry more criticism, journalists don’t see that as a cue to take action.”
To illustrate the realities behind the talk, he said “I would note how law-enforcement agencies detained me without any legal justification, as a way of intimidating me. That’s regarded as standard practice.”
By “criticism”, the president seems to mean taking part in his periodic purges of low- and mid-level officialdom. In that context, allegations of institutional corruption – within certain bounds – become acceptable.
According to Sergei Naumov, an independent journalist in northwestern town of Urgench, “It’s become mainstream for pro-government journalists, mainly in Russian-language print and web outlets, to criticise municipal and regional institutions, without touching on the foundations of national ideology or the top leadership.”
Only the business of censorship seems to be thriving. Naumov counted at least three agencies carrying out the function – the Centre for Monitoring Mass Communications, an “information and analysis” department in the presidential office, and a new, similarly-titled body that comes under the cabinet.
DIRE RECORDS ON MEDIA RIGHTS
Both countries are consistently excoriated in reports from international media watchdog groups. The only real change in recent years has been an attempt to exert the same control over the internet as the domestic print and broadcast media.
Uzbekistan comes sixth in the top ten Most Censored Countries compiled by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ. The country has “no independent media outlets”, and “independent journalists – mostly contributors to outlets outside the country – are subject to interrogation and prosecution under defamation charges or outdated statutes such as ‘insulting national traditions’,” CPJ said. “Internet access to independent news websites and online broadcasters is blocked, as are some keywords and topics on individual web pages. Foreign journalists are denied visas and accreditation.”
In the annual Press Freedom Index produced by the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, RSF, Turkmenistan ranked third from the bottom of the list, outdone only out by North Korea and Eritrea. Uzbekistan was only slightly less bad, in 164th place out of 179, but seven places down from its previous ranking.
RSF noted that for all its talk of reform, the Turkmen government “has not yielded an inch of its totalitarian control of the media”. It added that one of the few positive trends since President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power – rising public access to the internet – was being eroded by increasing controls on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like.
Unlike Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan has some nominally independent commercial broadcasters and print media, which the government puts on show when its record comes under attack in international fora. But these ventures are run by regime loyalists, and the output is largely entertainment.
As part of Berdymuhammedov’s declared policy of greater openness, he allowed one private newspaper, Rysgal, to be set up two years ago by an association of entrepreneurs. However, each issue has to be reviewed and approved in advance, just like the state newspapers, so unsurprisingly, its content is barely distinguishable.
Both these Central Asian states have long track-records of jailing journalists.
In February, RSF noted that Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Hajiev had been released at the end of seven-year jail terms in Turkmenistan. “Justice has still not been rendered to their colleague, Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in detention shortly after their arrest. And anyone who dares to criticise the authorities is still jailed or confined to a psychiatric hospital,” the RSF statement said. The three were arrested after helping a French TV company make a documentary about Turkmenistan, but instead of acknowledging this as the reason, the authorities charged them with firearms offences.
CPJ’s figures indicate that at least four journalists were in Uzbek prisons as of December 2012 – Solijon Abdurahmonov, Dilmurod Said, Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjanov) and Yusuf Ruzimurodov, the latter two “imprisoned longer than any other jailed journalists in the world”, the group said.
In such an environment, the already small band of independent journalists is dwindling.
“In recent years, the number of independent journalists has shrunk to around ten. Ten years ago there would have been several times that number… their average age is 45-plus,” Naumov said.
As for Turkmenistan, a journalist now in exile but who still prefers anonymity for security reasons, said, “There are independent journalists, bloggers, and stringers, but very few. They are constantly persecuted, their contacts are monitored, and their relatives threatened as a way of pressuring them…. There have been cases where journalists have been attacked and beaten up.”
The combination of persecution, censorship, blocked access to outside sources of information, and state media saturated with propaganda, leaves large numbers of people uninterested and apathetic.
The media expert in Turkmenistan described how the government forces institutions and individuals in the public sector to take out annual subscriptions to state newspapers, just to keep the numbers up.
“The postman delivers them, but no one even unwraps them,” he said. “They get used as fuel for stoves and ovens, or are cut up and used as toilet paper in the poorest rural households.”
“The official state media have no effect on the domestic population since no one reads newspapers or watches local TV except to find out who has been fired and hired in government, or to listen to music,” he said “People prefer watching foreign channels via satellite dishes.”
A small minority of people in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan try to keep abreast of events at home and abroad by following news outlets abroad, including websites run by exiled journalists or opposition groups. They can often get round state blocks on websites by using proxy servers.
Naumov was pessimistic about the reach of such independent news services. “It does have some influence but it’s unlikely to become the fuse that ignites popular discontent. The average Uzbek internet user is apathetic, so this shouldn’t be exaggerated,” he said.
Even so, the fact that the Uzbek and Turkmen authorities devote so much time to stamping out media freedom shows that they recognise its power.
“The authorities [in Turkmenistan] fear independent journalism. They realise that the truth could unsettle people and turn them against their leaders,” the exiled journalist said. “It would not need to be opposition media, just normal media that described life as it is, with all its problems, failings and mistakes…. The authorities are aware of this, so they ban normal criticism of the state of public services, the roads, and water, electricity and gas supplies.
Noting that current ideology held that Turkmenistan was living through an “Age of Might and Happiness”, the journalist said the media’s role was to slot into this agenda by “serving the interests of the government and issuing propaganda and praise for it”.
Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
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