Central Asia press freedom scores get worse

Photos of 11 journalists from Kyrgyzstan who were arrested in January 2024. Screenshot from the video “Дело против 11 журналистов сфабриковано // Temirov Live” from Temirov Live YouTube channel. Fair use.

This article was written by Alva Omarova for Vlast.kz and published on May 22, 2024. An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

In May, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published their 2024 press freedom index, 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. Press freedom watchdogs fear that a media law recently passed by the Majilis, the lower house of Parliament, might be used to tighten state control further, 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, the local bureau of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Kazakhstan, Radio Azattyq was also fined for disseminating false information after stating that the the Eurasian military bloc Collective Security Treaty Organization 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. This was manifested in the 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 International Partnership for Human Rights and its 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, the global civil society alliance, 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 six and a half, four and a half, 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, which raged between 1992 and 1997.

At least seven journalists are currently serving prison sentences between seven and 20 years. All of them have been convicted since late 2022.

#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. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reported that internet access almost disappeared for several days in June 2023, coinciding with the opening of the newly-built USD 3 billion Arkadag City. This was believed to be an attempt to curtail negative coverage of the lavish opening festivities.

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’.”

#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 receiving 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. He stated:

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 Central Asia underscores the need for renewed international pressure 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.

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