Turkmen, Uzbek Regimes Ranked Among World's Worst for Press Freedom

Turkmen, Uzbek Regimes Ranked Among World's Worst for Press Freedom

Sunday, 8 November, 2009
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have again been classed among world states hostile to freedom of the press.

When the international watchdog Reporters without Borders, RSF, issued its annual Press Freedom Index on October 20, the two worst offenders in Central Asia were assigned 160th (Uzbekistan) and 173rd place (Turkmenistan), on a list of 175. Only Eritrea and North Korea were placed worse than Turkmenistan. Last year the two countries also scored poorly – the Uzbeks at 162 and the Turkmen at 170.

This low ranking places the two countries in RSF’s category of the most repressive states where strict censorship is in force, and journalists are persecuted and arrested, and no changes for the better are noted over the course of the year.

“The situation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has not changed significantly this year,” said Elsa Vidal, head of RSF’s Europe and post-Soviet desk. “We are greatly concerned.”

Commentators in both countries agreed that the low rankings were deserved. They said the authorities continued to have no regard for freedom of speech, and the security services keep tabs on the media by visiting their offices, opening correspondence, monitoring journalists’ movements, and making it known what subjects are permissible.

“We can’t even imagine what it’s like to write about anything you want,” said a journalist in Ashgabat who works for a government newspaper. His articles are always about subjects assigned by his editor-in-chief.

Much of the output of the state news agency TDH and Neytralny Turkmenistan, the main government newspaper with a circulation of 60,000, is taken up with praise for the country’s leadership, in particular for the success of President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s Era of New Revival. Material broadcast on the four national TV and radio channels differs very little.

Turkmen journalists have few or no opportunities to work on their professional skills, and hardly any of them dare work for foreign media for fear of persecution.

Independent journalists became even more cautious than before after June 2008, when Sazak Durdymuradov, a stringer for RFE/RL radio’s Turkmen service, was arrested and spent two weeks in a close psychiatric hospital where he was also tortured.

Media-watchers say journalists remain under similar pressures in Uzbekistan. The only difference is that in a larger country, there are more skilled journalists, so the authorities respond with strong-arm tactics more often.

One recent case took place on October 10, when two independent journalists, Said Abdurahimov and Vassily Markov, were detained for attempting to take photos near the Karasuu checkpoint on Uzbekistan’s border with Kyrgyzstan. Officers from the National Security Service confiscated a recording device containing an interview with a local human rights activist, who was talking about an attack by militants on police in Andijan region in May 2009 this year.

Another recent case is the conviction of Dilmurod Sayid, a journalist given 12 years on for what human rights activists say were trumped-up charges.

Many journalists and media analysts are pessimistic about the prospects for improvement in either country.

“I’ve worked in Uzbekistan for a long time now,” said a journalist from Russia. “I’ve met President Islam Karimov. The major impression left by that meeting was his obvious hatred of the press.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
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