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22 мая 2024
Alva Omarova, IPHR, photo from 24.kg

Central Asia Press Freedom Scores Get Worse

A column by International Partnership for Human Rights

Central Asia Press Freedom Scores Get Worse

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published their press freedom index this month, highlighting the region-wide crackdown on freedom of expression in Central Asia. While Turkmenistan remains at the bottom of the table, the scores of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all plummeted compared to last year.

#142 Kazakhstan: Down

Kazakhstan’s score fell by five points from 45.87 to 41.11, a clear deterioration of freedom of expression in the country. For instance, press freedom watchdogs fear that a media law recently passed by the Majilis, the lower house of Parliament, might be used to further step-up state control, if it is finally approved. Journalists, bloggers and activists who are critical of the authorities are regularly detained and prosecuted.

Last year, the Administrative Code was updated with a vaguely worded provision, punishing the spreading of "false information.” This provision has been repeatedly used to stifle free speech. For example, an activist was fined after sharing a negative post on Instagram about President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

In November, Radio Azattyq was also fined for disseminating false information after stating that the Collective Security Treaty Organisation is “Russia-led”. This was followed by a decision by the ministry of foreign affairs to deny accreditation for more than 30 journalists working for Azattyq. While the dispute with the ministry was later settled, the draft media law under consideration would grant the government new powers to refuse accreditation. In May, Jamilya Maricheva, the founder of anti-corruption-focused media ProTenge, was fined for spreading false information because of an earlier post in support of the Azattyq journalists seeking accreditation.

In late April 2024, journalist Raul Uporov was fined for using obscene language, during a live stream on social media in which he criticized restrictions on media coverage of the spring floods in Kazakhstan. This fine was imposed under a provision prohibiting “petty hooliganism”.

#120 Kyrgyzstan: Down

The saying “out of the frying pan, into the fire” sums up the current situation in Kyrgyzstan. After a few years of tightening the screws on civil society and media, President Sadyr Japarov’s government has further stepped up pressure, including raids on independent media Temirov Live and 24.kg and mass arrests of journalists, the court-ordered closure of the well-known investigative portal Kloop, criminal cases against bloggers and activists, and the introduction of new, repressive laws. The recent passing of a so-called “foreign agent” law is particularly worrying as it could be used to silence free speech and obstruct the work of media and human rights groups, as IPHR and partners have warned. A widely criticized draft media law also remains under consideration.

In 2024 Kyrgyzstan’s score fell from 49.91 to 49.11 in the RSF ranking. And RSF is not the only organization that downgraded Kyrgyzstan’s human rights score because of recent negative developments. In December 2023, our partners with the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Kyrgyzstan’s civic space rating from “obstructed” to “repressed”. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan has been included on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of “countries experiencing a serious decline in civic freedoms.”

#155 Tajikistan: Down

The conditions for journalists and media in Tajikistan also worsened and the significant fall in score from 39.06 to 33.31 shows just how bad the situation is. Journalists in Tajikistan are scared. An anonymous human rights defender told us that “independent media and journalists have long since ceased to be ‘watchdogs of democracy’, they are more like sick, helpless, and frightened dogs chained with heavy chains.”

Recently, an author, an editor, and a publisher were convicted and sentenced to 6.5, 4.5, and one year in prison respectively after being found guilty of inciting hatred after publishing a book (“Stories Of My Life”). The book tells of ordinary people dealing with different aspects of life in contemporary Tajikistan, including tales of corruption and migration.

Anyone who expresses the slightest sign of criticism of the authorities faces punishment. In a recent report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticized the Tajik authorities for imprisoning journalists, noting that media freedom is in the worst state since the turbulent years of the civil war. At least seven journalists are currently serving prison sentences between seven and 20 years. All of them have been convicted since late 2022. In December, we urged the European Union to take effective measures to protect the rights of journalists, bloggers and others to exercise their freedom of expression without intimidation and harassment. Unsurprisingly, IPHR has put forward similar recommendations for all other Central Asian countries.

#175 Turkmenistan: Down

As in previous years, Turkmenistan is among the worst of the worst. It continues to sit so low in the RSF ranking that the decrease in score from 25.82 to 22.01 is almost meaningless. Due to state censorship and a tight control of the flow of information, people in Turkmenistan are essentially cut off from the rest of the world. Media operates under strict state control, and most foreign news sites are blocked. Internet connection is slow and expensive compared to global standards. Internet outages are regular occurrences: Our partner Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reported that internet access almost disappeared for several days in June last year, coinciding with the opening of the newly-built $3 billion Arkadag City. This was believed to be an attempt to curtail negative coverage of the lavish opening festivities for Arkadag City.

Authorities have also attempted to intimidate bloggers, warning them that “posting, liking, or commenting on any content critical of the authorities could be construed as ‘anti-government activity’ and ‘result in negative consequences, including imprisonment’.” In other words, big brother is watching you.

#148 Uzbekistan: Down

Uzbekistan’s score with RSF has plunged from 45.73 to 37.27 after numerous bloggers and social media users have been prosecuted for speaking up. Some were sent to prison, some to psychiatric hospitals. This is part of a broader trend, as the authorities increasingly target ordinary people who are not bloggers or journalists, but simply social media users. This year alone, there have been reports of at least 10 people who have been sentenced to prison terms for insulting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, some received prison terms of up to five years. This is a worrying trend, because it extends pressure to ordinary citizens exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In January this year, Mirziyoyev addressed Uzbekistan’s Security Council, speaking of the need to manage the local information sphere in light of national interests. “If we do not take the creation of national content in the information environment into our own hands, if we do not assess the events taking place in the world from the point of view of national interests, we will provide opportunities for this to be done from abroad. Because if we do not satisfy people’s need for news, analytical information, [information about] current events, others will do it. That is completely unacceptable.” Uzbekistan’s leadership clearly wishes to keep the media firmly under its control.

The bleak situation for freedom of expression in the Central Asian countries underscores the need for renewed international pressure on Central Asian governments to respect their international obligations. Free media and unhindered public debate are crucial to ensuring effective checks and balances on those in power, preventing corruption, nepotism, and other wrongdoing by officials, and improving living conditions for ordinary people in the region.

Alva Omarova is a researcher for International Partnership for Human Rights. IPHR is an independent, non-governmental organization founded in 2008. Based in Brussels, IPHR works closely together with civil society groups from different countries to raise human rights concerns at the international level and promote respect for the rights of vulnerable communities. See more at: https://www.iphronline.org/en/

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