By RFE RL
By Chris Rickleton
(RFE/RL) — During a deadly crisis in Uzbekistan’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan this summer, a glance at the private website Gazeta.uz revealed telltale signs of state censorship.
Underneath the headlines of articles related to the unrest that left more than 20 people dead, a sentence reading “Material deleted” had replaced texts that were visible just hours earlier.
The articles were reinstated quickly after criticism from users and Gazeta.uz’s report this week on a critical assessment of the security forces’ handling of the protests that was published by Human Rights Watch. The report has surprisingly not been removed since it was posted.
But the censorship episode highlighted the shifting “red lines” for independent media in Central Asia, where the environments range from Turkmenistan, where no free reporting is tolerated, to Kyrgyzstan, where the normally vibrant independent media experiences periodic crackdowns.
Kyrgyz Press Under Pressure
Described by Reporters Without Borders as “an exception in Central Asia, as it enjoys relative freedom of expression and of the press, despite an unstable economy and rampant official corruption,” Kyrgyzstan placed 72nd out of 180 countries in the group’smedia-freedom index for 2021.
But it would be surprising if it still held that relatively lofty perch in next year’s rankings.
The latest turn by authorities against independent journalism began in January, when riot police raided the office of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov, bringing him before a judge on narcotics charges.
Two separate charges — of forging state documents and illegally crossing a state border — swiftly followed.
Temirov maintained that the investigation was punishment for his Temirov Live investigation of the business activities of relatives of Kyrgyzstan’s national security chief, Kamchibek Tashiev, a powerful figure.
In September, Temirov won a partial acquittal, but the prosecutor has challenged the verdict.
Last month, attacks on the free media deepened after the government froze the bank account of RFER/L’s Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, and ordered its website to be blocked — acts that local and foreign media rights organizations described as attempts to silence the outlet’s reporting.
Authorities explained the block in relation to a video report on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict in September that they claimed used hate speech and false information, with RFE/RL coverage “predominantly taking the position of the Tajik side” during the fighting that killed more than 100 people.
The Kyrgyz government demanded the removal of the video from the website, but RFE/RL refused to take it down.
In solidarity with Azattyk amid the attacks from the government, several independent news websites decided on October 26 not to put news on their websites for several hours and ignored government press releases throughout the day.
The campaign was conducted under the slogan “There is no news. There is pressure on the media.”
Earlier in the month, a few dozen people rallied outside Azattyk’s office, clamoring for its closure and the shutdown of two other news websites, Kloop and Kaktus Media.
One member of the rally threatened to douse the office in gasoline if their demands were not met.
Swings And Roundabouts
Kyrgyzstan’s case shows how coverage of topics can become more dangerous as public and political attention on them grows sharper.
Other red lines are more time-honored, such as coverage of religious and interethnic issues, which can leave journalists open to vague but punitive charges of inciting discord, or coverage of LGBT rights, which are not widely accepted in the region.
Mention of elite corruption also rarely fails to trigger a reaction from authorities, especially when it concerns the families of national leaders.
In Kazakhstan, users reported problems accessing the website of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Azattyq, after the service published an interview with Geneva-based journalist Agathe Duparc, who co-authored a report examining the foreign business interests of Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and his family.
The story, The Kazakh President’s Underground Business Went Through Switzerland, appeared on the Swiss website Public Eye and cited leaked e-mails between Toqaev and his relatives among its sources.
Among other dealings, it dwelled on an expensive revamp of a conference room at the UN office in Geneva in 2012 when Toqaev, a career diplomat, was serving as the office’s director general.
The refurbishments, paid for by the Kazakh government, directly benefited the artist Batima Zaurbekova, the mother-in-law of Toqaev’s son, Timur.
The report has been largely ignored by the Kazakh media, where regime-loyal oligarchs own some of the largest outlets. Public Eye’s website is inaccessible to Kazakhstan-based users without circumvention tools.
Uzbekistan is one country in the region that can claim notable improvements in press freedom in the past decade, but only because the 25-year reign of brutal first President Islam Karimov had set the bar very low.
Signs of genuine media independence have emerged under President Shavkat Mirziyoev, but they are tentative as the government’s sensitivities over coverage of the Karakalpakstan crisis showed.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, remains blocked inside the country as it has been for many years.
In Tajikistan, things are moving in the other direction, with arrests and convictions of independent bloggers and journalists on trumped up charges considered commonplace.
Observers have attributed the latest crackdown in Tajikistan to the government’s desire to control the narrative surrounding a bloody security operation launched in its autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan in May.
The government has said 29 people died in that violence, as Dushanbe succeeded in either jailing or fatally wounding several key local leaders that it characterized as gangsters and terrorists.
RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Ozodi, one of the few independent sources of information in Tajikistan, verified the deaths of 34 people during the events that began with peaceful protests over perceived injustice in the region.
Another independent local outlet, Asia Plus, warned its readers in the first days of the conflict that it would not be able to give the events the coverage its readership deserved.
Asia Plus said it had been informed by authorities that its coverage was “unilateral” and threatened national stability. If the outlet did not “eliminate these shortcomings” it would be shut down, it quoted officials as saying.
- Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.