Eurasianet Organization
4 May 2004

WATCHDOG GROUPS CRITICAL OF MEDIA CONDITIONS IN CENTRAL ASIA,
CAUCASUS
5/04/04

Two media monitoring groups have singled out Central Asia as having
one of the most hostile working environments for journalists in the
world. Media observers also noted that journalists in the Caucasus
countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced an increasing level
of harassment in recent months.

The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the New
York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) both cited
Turkmenistan as Central Asia's most repressive nation, where the
totalitarian system built by Turkmen leader Saparmarat Niyazov has
stifled free speech. "The regime controlled all written and broadcast
media and also did everything it could to block news from the outside
world by banning foreign newspapers and blocking access to Internet
websites," Reporters Without Borders said in its 2004 Annual Report,
which was issued May 3 to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.

Meanwhile, CPJ detailed Turkmen government persecution of freelance
journalists working for US government-financed Radio Free Euope/Radio
Liberty, one of the few independent media outlets that operates in
Turkmenistan. "In September 2003, National Security Service agents
detained a RFE/RL stringer in the capital Ashgabat for two days,
threatened him with 20 years in prison for betraying his country, and
injected him multiple times with an unknown substance," CPJ said in a
May 3 statement. The group added that Turkmen authorities arrested
two RFE/RL freelancers in February 2004 after one was caught
attempting to smuggle 800 copies of his banned novel. The freelancers
are face charges of inciting social, ethnic and religious hatred.

Media watchers say Uzbekistan, which was the scene of militant
attacks in late March, also tightly controls the press. "Censorship
was officially abolished in 2002, but the media was still being
censored in 2003 and no criticism of President Islam Karimov and his
policies was allowed," the RWB Annual Report said. Uzbek media
coverage of the recent violence in Tashkent and Bukhara underscored
the government's heavy-handed control of free speech. State-run media
largely avoided coverage of the attacks, while Uzbek officials
castigated those foreign media outlets and independent journalists
who challenged the official view of events. [For additional
information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In public comments May 2, Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig
Murray, offered a scathing assessment of Uzbekistan's media
conditions. Murray assailed the government for its censorship
practices, and criticized journalists for being "tame and useless"
and for not working harder to overcome official restrictions.

"It is not that journalists cannot do their job, it is that they will
not do their job. It is time they start it," Murray said. "Uzbek
journalists are rather parasitical people who do not publish any
truth, don't seek the truth, don't try to publish it and really they
are a disgrace to their profession."

Press conditions are comparatively better in other Central Asian
states. Yet the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
have all taken action to restrict independent media, RWB said.

In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently drew praise
for refusing to sign a restrictive media bill into law. [For
additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same
time, media rights groups remain critical of the Kazakhstani
government for its harassment of prominent opposition journalists, in
particular Sergei Duvanov. [For additional information see the
Eurasia Insight archive].

According to RWB, Kyrgyzstan damaged its reputation for having
Central Asia's freest media by approving constitutional amendments in
early 2003 that impose "further curbs on press freedom." The RWB
Annual Report also criticized the Kyrgyz government for forcing Maya
Stolitsa, a leading opposition newspaper, out of business. On the
positive side, the report expressed hope that a new US-financed
printing press would facilitate the publication of independent
newspapers and periodicals. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive].

In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmonov recently proposed
substantial tax breaks to stimulate print media development. However,
Tajik broadcast outlets, which enjoy far greater audiences than do
newspapers and periodicals, would not be eligible for the tax breaks.
[For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Despite
Rahmonov's recent support for press independence, the RWB report said
the Tajik government "continued their extensive harassment of
independent newspapers and refused to issue operating licenses to
privately-owned TV and radio stations."

The Caucasus has also witnessed a fair share of media harassment.
Observers say politically-related violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan
has prompted authorities in both countries to crack down on its
critics.

Robert Kocharian's administration in Armenia has come under growing
pressure from his political opponents, who maintain the country's
presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003 were rigged. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In April, authorities
used force to break up opposition protests in Yerevan, with riot
police apparently targeting journalists for beatings. [For additional
information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On April 30, an ad hoc
group calling itself In Protection of Journalists appealed to the
government to stop harassing media representatives, the Arminfo news
agency reported. "It is not known why violence against journalists is
continuing and does not get authorities' adequate assessment," the
group said in a written statement.

Azerbaijan has long presented independent journalists with difficult
working conditions. Since the disputed October 2003 presidential
election, President Ilham Aliyev has maintained considerable pressure
on opposition-allied media outlets. [For additional information see
the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The hoped-for wave of reform after
Ilham Aliev, son of longtime leader Heidar Aliev, became president
... did not come," the RWB report said. "Opposition media remained
under broad pressure, there was no diversity in broadcasting and the
regime did not fulfill its international commitments."

Meanwhile, Georgia received a mildly favorable review from RWB, which
noted that the coming to power of President Mikheil Saakashvili's
administration in January "raised fresh hopes" that the development
of independent media would accelerate.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress