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Interview with OSCE senior adviser on freedom of the media

[Kazakhstan] Independent press under attack. IRIN
Uzbeks have no chance to read or listen to material critical of the status quo
The Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told IRIN in an interview on Thursday that Central Asia was "returning to feudalism" and that media freedom in the region was by far the worst the 55-nation organisation had to contend with. Alex Ivanko, senior adviser to the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, said that in the Central Asian states it was clearly noticeable that journalists reporting on corruption were persecuted. Ivanko charted the demise of media freedom since the glory days of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and pointed out that poverty was a key factor militating against a strong, well-resourced, independent media sector in the five republics. QUESTION: How would you describe the current state of media freedom in Central Asia? ANSWER: I would say it is very dicey, it is the worst region in the OSCE region, and we have 55 participating states. In Turkmenistan, you basically have no freedom of expression or semblance of one. It has the worst record of any OSCE participating state. It's a dictatorship where media freedom does not exist per se. Uzbekistan is very close also to Turkmenistan. Q: What are the main methods being used to curtail media freedom in the region? A: The region has everything you can find in the book, from your basic unsubtle methods in Turkmenistan such as imprisonment, beatings and even killings. The same in Uzbekistan. There is a journalist in Uzbekistan, his name is [Ruslan] Sharipov. Sharipov wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan where he described how he was tortured and forced to basically acknowledge his crimes and he was also threatened by injection with the AIDS virus. So you have that and you have the more subtle ways of pressuring the media, like threatening calls or using the court system, which is neither fair nor independent. These methods have been used in Kyrgyzstan, which is the relatively [most] democratic country of the five Central Asian states. Libel suits are filed on a regular basis against journalists, and as a result a lot of the media are forced into bankruptcy, because the courts make decisions in favour of the plaintiffs, and this often results in the media being pushed out of business. One of the most critical newspapers in Kyrgyzstan was forced into bankruptcy by libel suits, and had to open under a new name. But I can't even see how long it will survive under the new name, because it's always pressured by libel suits. Q:Why are things so bad in Central Asia right now? A: The logic here is that initially, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, media supported the new leaders and those that supported independence from Moscow. The new leaders, most [of them] tied to the old communist past, then used the media to come to power and break off from the Soviet Union. Of course, at that point, the media were their biggest friends. However, with privatisation - that led to corruption, that led to government business dealings that nobody really wanted out in the open. Then the press, doing its job, started uncovering them and covering things the government didn't really like and started acting like society's watchdog, which is one of the roles of the media in a democratic society. As a result, around the mid- to late 1990s you had a clampdown on media freedom across the board. This went much further in Central Asia, although we have similar tendencies in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Russia itself. The reasons for the clampdown being worse in Central Asia are mainly historical. That region never really had any history of democratic development or reform. A lot of it has to do with the autocratic state of affairs in the region and the way these leaders rule. Plus these are very poor nations, so the media are not really independent, because there is no advertising market, so it's quite easy to bankrupt them and put them out of business. Q: What impact is new technology like the Internet having on media freedom in Central Asia? A: Not much. First of all, access is a major issue, its expensive. Secondly, the government, like in Turkmenistan, is the only provider, so it can firewall access to a whole bunch of sites that it considers subversive. It's a similar story in Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. So, because so few people currently have access to the Internet, it's not a major factor in the region. It's a much bigger factor in places like the Balkans and Ukraine, for example. Q: You paint a gloomy picture. Are there any positive signs in the region with regard to media freedom? A: Kyrgyzstan was doing relatively OK until early 2000, but then it started going downhill also by clamping down on the independent media through the judicial system. Despite this, it's still the only country in Central Asia where you have reasonable freedom of expression. As one journalist said, "We have freedom of expression, but we do not have freedom of the media." Q: What, then, is the OSCE doing to promote freedom of the media in these republics? A: First of all, any cases of harassment are raised by Mr [Freimut] Duve [OSCE Media Freedom Representative] with the government concerned or with the OSCE permanent council. In all cases we try to track them down and raise them on a regular basis. For example, the case of Sergei Duvanov, in prison in Kazakhstan on trumped-up charges has been raised on at least a dozen occasions. Second, we provide assistance. For example, we just held the fifth Central Asia Media Conference in Kyrgyzstan, where we brought together over 100 journalists from the region to discuss regional problems, how they can cooperate and what they can do to try to counter pressure from the governments. We also provide legal assistance. We have helped the Kazakh government draft a media law. These are indeed small steps, but we hope they will lead to a brighter future.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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