Jounalists Rally Against Press Curbs

New Central Asian journalism association set up to campaign against growing curbs on press freedom

Jounalists Rally Against Press Curbs

New Central Asian journalism association set up to campaign against growing curbs on press freedom

Officials in Kygyzstan are putting the final touches to legislation that analysts fear will severely restrict freedom of speech and put an end to independent journalism in the Central Asian republic.

The Kyrgyz legislation aims to protect the political system from "destructive" information from abroad. The independent media dismisses it as a ploy to buttress the personal authority of the president.

Analysts say Central Asian leaders regard the activities of the independent media as posing the greatest threat to their rule.

In the face of growing state constraints on the regional press, 20 journalists set up a new regional organisation to fight to protect free speech at a recent IWPR meeting in Bishkek.

The new body will be based in the Kyrgyz capital and headed by the director of the local IWPR office Chinara Jakypova.

"The restriction of access to free (public) information is not in the interests of the authorities and secret services," said Turat Akimov, an expert at the Agency of Political Research.

"Critical information will appear anyway - in a concealed form, which will only complicate the work of the secret service for collection of data and analysis of the situation."

There's strict state control of the press right across Central Asia. The exception is Kazakstan, but here the media is effectively in the hands of the president's family, with employees forced to pledge their loyalty to the head of state.

"Instead of independent publications, 'ersatz-television' and 'ersatz-newspapers' emerge, the employees of which are forced to sign contracts pledging loyalty and non-participation in mass political actions,"said Rozlana Taukina, IWPR Regional Director covering Kazakstan.

In Kazakstan, recent media law amendments forbid the press from making references to information gleaned from the Internet.

Experts note that analysis and investigative reports have started disappearing from the pages of newspapers in Kazakstan. Journalists on publications closed by the authorities are forced to turn to foreign media to publish such articles.

Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev who until recently enjoyed the reputation of being the most democratic leader in Central Asian, was the first in the region to move against the media, bringing a law suit against the newspaper "ResPublica" in 1995.

Yrysbek Omurzakov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Tribuna", who was convicted in 1996 of "slandering the president", said Akaev frequently gets parliament to change the law in order to prosecute unruly journalists.

At other times, officials and judges force critical publications to pay huge fines and force them to close.

In Uzbekistan, censorship remains common practice. According to the constitution, there are no obstacles to freedom of speech, but the danger of losing their business forces media owners to toe the official line.

There is also a degree of self-censorship. "There is a national characteristic of Uzbeks to make light of problems - generally, criticism is not in the national character of Uzbeks," said Uzbek journalist Bakhodyr Musaev.

In Tajikistan, there is no legislative base for an independent press, no obvious suppression of the media by the authorities and no lawsuits against journalists.

The authorities do not threaten the media, but everybody understands what is forbidden. Forty journalists have been killed over the last ten years. Self-censorship, understandably, is pervasive.

"The media avoid addressing controversial topics," said Lidia Isamova, the editor of the news agency 'Asia Plus'. " Anecdotes and gossip flourish in the press. The absence of serious material is compensated for by presence of Russian newspapers. "

In Turkmenistan, there are simply no independent media. State press only reflects official policies. "The only independence that I guarantee the media," declared the Turkmen president Saparmurad Niazov, "is independence from financial difficulties."

Sceptics doubt the new regional journalists association will have much influence. They say the competitive nature of the independent media in Central Asia will militate again their ability to take a unified position.

There are fears that patriotic emotions will replace corporate solidarity as soon as territorial issues and disputes over debts surface.

In Kyrgyzstan, several journalistic foundations and human rights groups have already been set up, but their influence is minimal. "Before the establishment of a regional organisation, a consensus within each republic is needed," said Nuriddin Karshiboev, chairman of the Independent Association of Media of Tajikistan.

One of the main purposes of the new journalism association is to teach Western style reporting to young journalists, putting special emphasis on fairness, objectivity and accuracy.

"One of the main failings of the press in Central Asia is that they are either 'for' or 'against' the authorities, " said IWPR Programmes Director Alan Davis.

"The training component of the new association will instil international standards of journalism in young reporters. They will learn to report not about what they themselves think as authors, but about what other people think. They will start exposing different sides of conflicts."

Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor

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