Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Voices From Closed Central Asian States

IWPR news service helps Uzbek and Turkmen journalists and rights defenders get reports out to wider audience.
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova
  • Participants in a News Briefing Central Asia workshop. (Photo: IWPR)
    Participants in a News Briefing Central Asia workshop. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Round table that brought together experts and human rights activists involved in the NBCA project, Bishkek 2008. (Photo: IWPR)
    Round table that brought together experts and human rights activists involved in the NBCA project, Bishkek 2008. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Vyacheslav Mamedov, (second from right), a Turkmen activist living abroad, addresses workshop participants. (Photo: IWPR)
    Vyacheslav Mamedov, (second from right), a Turkmen activist living abroad, addresses workshop participants. (Photo: IWPR)

News Briefing Central Asia, IWPR’s news analysis and comment service covering developments in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, has become a first point of call for human rights defenders and regional experts.

Reporters turn to NBCentralAsia to put out stories on news that would otherwise not get much coverage because of the heavily-restricted media environment in the two Central Asian states.

NBCentralAsia draws on the expertise of a wide range of political observers across the region to analyse news events and thus contribute to greater public awareness of key issues affecting the region.

NBCentralAsia is a resource for “civil society activists who persist with their work in the face of official hostility”
Turkmen activist Vyacheslav Mamedov

Since its launch, NBCentralAsia, published in four languages – English, Russian, Uzbek and Turkmen – has built a reputation as one of the few sources of independent, balanced information on human rights, political, economic and social conditions in the two countries.

“When we launched the project in 2006, it was hard to imagine it would become so popular in these closed countries, where the authorities strictly control the flow of information and local journalists are afraid to work with independent media,” IWPR’s senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan Inga Sikorskaya, working from the Kyrgyz capital in Bishkek, recalled.

“We set ourselves the task of winning the trust of the local readership and the media community generally. Five years on, we can see we’ve achieved that goal.”

Sikorskaya said the project team had established close links with local civil society groups and the community of experts and analysts. Reporting from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has got easier as a result, as these people contact IWPR themselves.

“Practically every day, we rights activists and political analysts offer ideas for new reports, which helps our work. We value their contribution; without it, pursuing the project would have been impossible,” she said.

According to Sikorskaya, IWPR has a pool of journalists in these countries who work with us because they want to report truth about what is happening there and learn international standards of journalism.

“We tried to involve as many Uzbek and Turkmen reporters as possible in our training events,” she said. “That wasn’t always easy, given concerns about journalists’ safety and the difficulties they have travelling out of the country to take part in seminars and round-table meetings.”

Some journalists who wrote for NBCentralAsia have gone on to work for international media outlets.

Vyacheslav Mamedov, leader of Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, an émigré group based in The Netherlands, has been involved in the NBCentralAsia from the outset. He said the strength of the project was that it sought out contributing writers outside the Turkmen and Uzbek capitals, in regions from which little news gets out.

Mamedov said activities like the NBCentralAsia project are a lifeline to human rights activists and independent journalists working in an extremely difficult media environment.

“Being involved in the project gives them a chance to do their job. It’s a source of support for... civil society activists who persist with their work in the face of official hostility,” he said.

Gavhar Berdieva, a human rights activist from Uzbekistan, said engaging with NBCentralAsia contributed to her professional development.

“I should say I have grown alongside the project,” Berdieva said, explaining that when she first encountered NBCentralAsia several years ago, she was only starting out in her human rights work. In the intervening period, she has gained a lot of experience from taking part in training events and from using the IWPR training manual Effective Communications: A Practical Guide for Human Rights NGOs.

When human rights groups they NBCentralAsia is frequently the first port of call for local human rights defenders who have gathered evidence of abuses.

Uzbek human rights activist Vladimir Husainov was already a regular NBCentralAsia reader when he decided to approach the team. A partnership evolved that resulted in a number of articles, one of them on the use of torture and sexual violence against female detainees (Torture of Female Prisoners Now Routine in Uzbekistan.)

Another article, Child Labour Persists in Uzbek Cotton Industry was also a joint effort, this time with the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan. The alliance’s head Yelena Urlaeva said that without engaging with journalists, it was hard for activist groups to disseminate news of abuses effectively.

According to Urlaeva, IWPR training seminars served as a good school for combine human rights work and journalism to raise awareness.

She added that IWPR was known to the Uzbek police and security services, who she said monitor its output. This meant that on occasion, the authorities were more responsive on certain issues.

“Very often, these [policies] agencies study the material published on the website, and are forced to respond because the information the reports contain is accurate and balanced,” she said.

Another long-term commentator for NBCentralAsia, Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders in Uzbekistan, also focused on the objectivity of reporting.

“What’s important is that different views are presented, and positive as well as negative developments are reported,” he said.

Given the dearth of objective sources of information about Uzbekistan, he said, “NBCentralAsia fills a gap.”.

Suhrobjon Ismoilov, a member of the Expert Working Group, a non-government think tank in Uzbekistan, said the extra publicity his organisation got when IWPR cited or republished its reports had been of great value.

“Thanks to this, our work has become known to a wider audience in other countries where there are people who care about Uzbekistan,” Ismoilov said.

NBCentralAsia editor Yulia Goryaynova says the work allows journalists to report the truth without the constraints of censorship.

“The NBCentralAsia project has gained the trust of its readers, who listens to what we have to say, read us regularly, and republish our reports. That’s invaluable,” she said.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor.