Central Asia: more than discontent

A SENIOR TV journalist loses his job in Uzbekistan, a gutsy Kyrgyz newspaper is squeezed out of existence and a Kazak Government-sponsored media event papers over the silencing of private broadcasters and easing out of independent newspapers. All over Central Asia, the battle over accountability and transparency is gaining momentum, with the autocratic regimes successfully camouflaging the relentless assault on press freedom thanks to an ever-pliant judicial system.

In each instance of a successful suppression of opposition and protest, the regimes have deployed the means of striking back at the protesters through the law of the land. In each such case, the Opposition has been branded constitutionally as anti-national, anti-people and essentially fraudulent. Few autocratic regimes in modern history have exploited the law of the land so successfully in order to smother criticism, opposition and protest and safeguard their own continuity.

The case of the Uzbek TV journalist is simply Orwellian. On May 4-5, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) visited Tashkent to get a first-hand assessment of the economic reforms that the Islam Karimov Government was expected to have ushered in. State TV showed in its coverage of the EBRD-Uzbek Government meeting on May 4 that many in the audience slept through Mr. Karimov's speech. While this by itself would have been scandalous and unprecedented for the country, State TV further showed the EBRD chairperson, the British MP, Clare Short, admonishing Mr. Karimov with the following words, "There are particular concerns in Uzbekistan about lack of respect for freedom of religion, the prevalence of torture and the failure of the judicial system to protect the rights of citizens." This footage was followed by one showing Mr. Karimov looking thoroughly depressed and with his head in his hands.

Uzbeks were left dumbfounded by the unusual courage displayed by state TV. But immediately after the broadcast, the political editor and one of the senior most Uzbek journalists, Ahmadjon Ibrahimov, and two cameramen who had covered the event were summoned to the director, Ahmad Azam's office where they were asked for written explanations. Mr. Ibrahimov was told simultaneously that he had lost his job, while the two cameramen were let off with adequately dire warnings.

The Orwellian aspect was much in evidence in the Uzbek capital during the two days of the EBRD team's visit. The prices of all essentials including vegetables were artificially pegged down, mainly to establish that the Government had succeeded in disciplining the otherwise raging black market. Unfortunately for the Government, the EBRD delegation appeared to have been briefed well in advance and the ploy failed.

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the period from May 23 onwards saw the finale of a sordid drama that the Government had been enacting against Moya Stolitsa Novosti, an independent newspaper run by professionally committed journalists. On that day, the authorities impounded the entire print run, 15,000 copies, of the newspaper. Three days later, court bailiffs seized all funds and property belonging to the newspaper. For all practical purposes, its publication has been stalled, but all in the course of executing court orders awarded to compensate an aggrieved Prime Minister, Nikolai Tanaev, and citizen, Akin Toktaliev. The newspaper, started in 2001 and focussing on official corruption and exposing the President Askar Akaev's relatives, is now saddled with 37 lawsuits against it, 28 of which have been tried and gone against it. Interestingly, the courts in Bishkek have not only punished the newspaper by imposing a withering 3 million soms (US $ 71,000) fine but have also ensured that individual journalists involved in the writing and publishing of the offending stories are made to pay 100,000 soms for their respective roles.

In Almaty, the capital of the sprawling Kazakstan, yet another charade at playing democracy was enacted in late-April. An international media conference, organised by the President's daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva, to discuss press freedom was marked more by sumptuous drinking and eating and accompanying bonhomie than by any serious attempt at strengthening press freedom and free discussion in an evolving society. The event itself was the Nazarbaev Government's response to persistent demands of the International Press Institute to initiate a serious debate in the country on press freedom. Quite expectedly, all but one of the speakers at the conference were Government employees. The president's daughter was candid enough to say, "Our task was to put Kazakstan on display, to show how different we are here."While non-state journalists in general were not invited, the few who were were not allowed to speak. It was only after foreign journalists took up their cause that some of them were allowed in as participants. But what truly reflected the Government's media policy was the following comment by the president's daughter, "society and power are not ready for criticism. Criticism annoys them."

In all the Central Asian republics, independent journalists seriously attempting to democratise the once-closed societies are either already behind bars or have been sacked or physically assaulted, sometimes to the extent of suffering permanent injury and even narrowly escaping death. Newspaper after newspaper and broadcasting stations are being closed down, oftener than not in futile attempts by their management to honour deliberately crippling compensations awarded by courts of law to complainants, who are oftener than not Government functionaries. This is a particularly nefarious development because the Governments are thereby able to avoid the direct stigma of being anti-press freedom, while the courts can always hide behind the convenient camouflage of strictly following the laws of the land.

The sustained anti-press campaign is essentially part of a larger exercise to stifle political opposition, a trend which works at cross-purposes with the avowed aim of strengthening democratic norms in the region which faces the twin threats of Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism. This is where deeper international attention should be directed towards Central Asia, for an eventual failure of the present regimes to satisfactorily counter religious extremism and terrorism would impinge ultimately on a much wider canvas.

A pertinent aspect of the situation in Central Asia is that even in the aftermath of September 11 and the heavy and very visible presence of large American defence forces contingents in four of the republics, religious extremists and terrorists are increasingly in action. Truly, inter-governmental intelligence sharing, with substantial inputs from the Americans and its allies and from Russia, is helping the regimes fight the twin dangers in a more effective manner than before. Nevertheless, what is causing concern in the region and in the international community is the ability of extremist groups to recruit local youth in larger numbers.

This situation definitely calls into question the ultimate benefits of the strong antipathy that the regimes show towards a critical press and legitimate political opposition. The wider cause of fighting religious extremism and global terrorism is hardly being served by the constant crackdown on the two pillars of democracy, a free press and an active Opposition? The sooner the international community persuades the regimes to think and act differently the better for the future of the strategic region and for the world at large.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.)

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