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CPJ testifies before U.S. Congress on press freedom conditions in Central Asia

New York, July 19, 2001--A CPJ representative testified before a joint congressional subcommittee yesterday about the terrible state of press freedom in Central Asia. [Read the transcript]

"Repression and violence, or the threat thereof, are ever present for many reporters, encouraging self-censorship as a survival mechanism," CPJ Washington representative Frank Smyth told the joint hearing of the International Operations and Human Rights and Middle East and South Asia subcommittees of the House International Relations Committee. "Absence of public debate about issues allows repressive regimes to stay in power."

Smyth's testimony was part of a hearing on "Silencing Central Asia: The Voices of Dissent," held to investigate the state of freedom and democracy in Central Asia.

Freedom struggle
Surveying the state of press freedom in the five Central Asian republics, Smyth said it was not possible to talk of a free press in Turkmenistan. In Uzbekistan, local journalists are struggling under an increasingly oppressive regime. At the other end of the political spectrum, Kyrgyzstan historically allowed more press freedom than its neighbors. In recent years, however, the government has carried out a campaign of harassment and intimidation against local independent newspapers.

Tajikistan and Kazakhstan fall somewhere between these two extremes. Some measure of press freedom exists within strict boundaries defined by the governments, which do not hesitate to stifle critical reporting.

Kazakh journalist blocked from attending hearing
Yermurat Bapi, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper SolDat, was invited to attend the hearings, but Kazakh authorities kept him from leaving the country. The same authorities allowed a pro-government Kazakh journalist to attend the hearing.

Bapi was planning to fly from Kazakhstan to the United States with Amirzhan Qosanov, an activist member of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan who had also been invited to attend. When the two men arrived at the Almaty airport on Sunday, July 15, Kazakh security officials prevented them from boarding their flight and seized both their passports, citing instructions from the National Security Committee.

Both Bapi and Qosanov had obtained valid Kazakh exit visas and U.S. entry visas, Agence France-Presse reported.

END


Testimony on July 18, 2001, for the joint hearing of the House Subcommittees on International Operations and Human Rights (IOHR) and Middle East and South Asia (MESA) on 'Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of Dissidents.'

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting the Committee to Protest Journalists to testify at today's hearing. I am Frank Smyth, the Washington representative of the CPJ, and I am presenting a report written by my colleague Emma Gray, CPJ's program consultant for Europe and Central Asia who is unable to be here in person. I will be happy to take questions, but regret that since I am not a specialist in the region, I may have to refer queries to Ms. Gray who will be pleased to answer them in written form.

Introduction

In the past two weeks two incidents have occurred that highlight the urgent need to monitor press freedom and human rights in Central Asia. They serve as chilling reminders of the fate of those brave journalists and other members of civil society who dare to criticize their government publicly.

The death in detention of former Uzbek parliamentarian Shovriq Rusimorodov, an activist with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, is a tragic addition to the long list of Uzbek government opponents who have died for their views. Rusimorodov had most recently annoyed the authorities by speaking out on behalf of fellow citizens who had been convicted of collaboration with armed insurgents, and others who had been forcibly displaced from their villages. He was arrested on June 15, and held incommunicado for three weeks. Uzbek officials barred access to a lawyer or to family members. His body was delivered to his family on July 7, and his colleagues believe he was tortured to death.

On July 5, Russian authorities in Moscow arrested Dododjon Atovullo, the exiled publisher and editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz ("Daylight"). Atovullo was an outspoken critic of the Tajik government. He was arrested by Russian authorities at the request of the Tajik government, which sought his extradition. His newspaper has frequently accused government officials of corruption, nepotism, and drug trafficking. Atovullo faces charges of sedition and insulting the president, and his lawyer said he would face the death penalty if extradited to Tajikistan. The Russian authorities denied the extradition request. On July 11, Atovullo returned to Germany where he now lives.

The fate of these two courageous individuals demonstrates an inescapable fact of life for the citizens of Central Asia: that speaking out is dangerous. Journalism is a hazardous profession in many of the countries that CPJ monitors, and the republics of Central Asia are no exception. Since it is a region where the United States has interests and influence, we welcome this opportunity to discuss ways of improving the press freedom climate in the region.

I shall outline press freedom conditions and CPJ's work in each country, then discuss common problems faced by the media throughout the region, and finally offer some suggestions on ways in which the IOHR and MESA subcommittees could act to ease the plight of journalists in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan

The most striking feature of the media landscape in Kazakhstan is the tight control exerted by the family and business associates of President Nursultan Nazarbayev over the country's most influential newspapers and broadcast outlets. What the regime does not own outright, it aims to stifle through the harassment and persecution of journalists.

Often this intimidation is conducted through the courts. Libel is a criminal offense in Kazakhstan, despite a growing international consensus that no one should ever be jailed for what they say or write. Earlier this year, CPJ wrote to President Nazarbayev to protest the one-year jail sentence handed to Yermurat Bapi, editor of the newspaper Soldat, who was convicted of "publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the president." Though the editor was pardoned, he remains a convicted criminal who is banned from traveling abroad.

Media outlets that cover taboo subjects experience official harassment, including the confiscation of print runs and tax raids on editorial offices. State-owned printing houses often refuse to print newspapers that touch on hot-button issues such as high-level corruption. Meanwhile, the law against publishing state secrets criminalizes unauthorized disclosure of such information as the private life and health of the president and his family.

Journalists who work for news outlets financed by the political opposition are targets of intimidation. Government officials and associates of the president often file defamation suits against such news outlets, which regularly face crippling fines imposed by pliant judges.

To highlight the regime's harassment of opposition and independent journalists, CPJ placed Nazarbayev on its annual list of the "Ten Worst Enemies of the Press" last year. In 2001, the country's press freedom record remains abysmal.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan's reputation for allowing more press freedom than any other Central Asian country was sullied by a severe government clampdown on independent media in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections last year. The country's poor economic conditions are also a major factor hampering media pluralism. As a rule, attacks on journalists take the form of legal pressure rather than imprisonment or beatings, but the recent crackdown shows no sign of easing.

Libel remains a criminal offence though earlier this year hopes were raised that Parliament will repeal the relevant statutes. The U.S. media development organization Internews has been active in persuading government officials to consider such a move.

Most libel cases are tried in fact in civil courts, and suits filed against newspapers often result in huge fines. In April, the opposition daily Asaba was declared bankrupt after losing a battle over repayment of loans and its inability to pay an unprecedented US$100,000 damage award to a parliamentary deputy who alleged that the paper had libelled him repeatedly over many years. In the past, Asaba had frequently been harassed by Kyrgyz tax authorities, and its newsprint stocks were often confiscated. The opposition weekly Res Publica and the independent daily Delo Nomer have also faced concerted legal harassment including several libel suits, some of which resulted in heavy fines.

Complicated media registration laws have impeded the activities of the independent press. On June 20 the Justice Ministry cancelled the registration of 16 Kyrgyz media outlets, including two owned by outspoken government critics. The two editors ­ Aleksandr Kim and Melis Eshimkanov ­ claim the cancellation may be politically motivated, rather than a bureaucratic mistake as the registering body claimed. In one recent victory however, Osh TV, one of the first independent stations in Central Asia, won a long-standing court battle with the government that allowed it to retain a popular broadcasting frequency.

Uzbekistan

President Islam Karimov's increasingly oppressive regime has carried out a wholesale attack on human rights, including those of journalists. The situation has worsened in recent years, as Karimov has used the threat of Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism as a pretext for jailing thousands of Moslem believers and cracking down on civil and political rights. In carrying out their profession journalists are forced to walk an ever more hazardous minefield created by newly-adopted anti-terrorism laws.

Torture of political detainees is commonplace. CPJ has documented at least three cases of journalists being held under appalling conditions in notorious penal colonies. At least two of the journalists were tortured. The third is in extremely poor health; we fear for his life if his incarceration continues.

CPJ is investigating two more cases--Shonazar Yermatov and Majid Abduraimov--in which reporters face long prison sentences for bribery and extortion or for possession of narcotics. In spite of the courts' rulings, we believe that both men were in fact charged because of their writing. Uzbek police commonly plant narcotics or bundles of money as an effective means of silencing critical voices, according to local human rights sources.

Government domination of the media, including the Internet, is all but absolute. Close allies of the president or other government officials own the main media companies. The government has a monopoly on printing presses and newspaper distribution, and it finances the main newspapers. Uzbekistan is one of the few countries in the world that routinely practices prior censorship. The State Press Committee reviews articles before publication, and can order any material to be withdrawn. It is not unusual for newspaper editors to receive phone calls from officials demanding revisions. The current edition of Dangerous Assignments, CPJ's biannual magazine devoted to news and analysis about the global struggle for press freedom, includes a vividly detailed report of the local censorship regime written by an anonymous Uzbek journalist. (The article is included as an annex to this testimony.)

Tajikistan

Tajikistan is still reeling from the devastation of the five-year civil war, which ended in 1997. In dire conditions of instability and poverty, reporting remains a dangerous profession, especially for the few journalists who dare to investigate power struggles in the political and military elite or trafficking in weapons and drugs by organized criminal gangs. According to Tajik sources, local law enforcement agencies are responsible for much of the harassment, beatings, and threats that journalists endure. The state controls the single publishing house in Tajikistan, and the authorities intervene when they do not wish an article or newspaper to see the light of day. Applications for broadcasting licenses can take years to be processed.

The Tajik Penal Code stipulates that "the distribution of clearly false information defaming a person's honor, dignity, or reputation" is punishable by up to two years in jail. Insulting or defaming the president carries a maximum of five years imprisonment. Most attacks take the form of violent beatings, reportedly at the hands of the police or security forces.

In this bleak picture, one relatively bright spot is the northern Tajikistan province of Sugd, near the Uzbek border. Sugd emerged relatively unscathed from the civil war, and independent journalism seems to be thriving there today. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting recently reported 10 independent TV stations and 17 privately-owned newspapers in the region, all of which operated without undue pressure from local authorities. The new ventures are supported by international organizations such as the OSCE, the Eurasia Foundation, USAID and Internews. One cannot overemphasize the vital role that such organizations play in funding, training and technical support for local journalism.

Turkmenistan

It is not possible to speak of a free press in Turkmenistan, where the local government takes isolationism to absurd extremes. On April 5, for example, President Saparmurat Niyazov summarily banned opera and ballet in his country, claiming both were "alien" to Turkmen culture.

The state controls all publishing and broadcast licenses, and last year took steps to regulate the Internet as well. In May 2000, the Ministry of Communications rescinded the licenses of the country's five private Internet Service Providers (ISPs), giving Turkmentelecom and other state communication entities an information monopoly. Given Turkemistan's dismal economic record, few journalists were in a position to take advantage of the Internet in any case, but the ruling exacerbated their isolation.

Aside from the state news agency, Turkmenistan has ten Turkmen language publications and one Russian publication (a few Russian newspapers also circulate in the country). All foreign visitors must submit to strict surveillance by the Council for the Supervision of Foreigners, further restricting outside influence over the country.

As well as institutionalized controls over the media, President Niyazov's cult of personality is omnipresent and overwhelming. The newspapers and airwaves are filled with tributes to Niyazov's "glorious" words and deeds.

Few dare to speak out against a regime that routinely jails and tortures political and religious dissidents. The few journalists that do write for foreign publications use pseudonyms.

Common Threads

The region as a whole suffers from poverty, political instability and rampant corruption. Lack of political and civil rights is a pattern throughout Central Asia--aspects of state pressure against the media include:

  •   overwhelming state ownership of media
  •   state monopolies on printing facilities and distribution networks
  •   lack of official accountability
  •   lack of transparency of government funding
  •   absence of judicial impartiality
  •   markedly increased pressure prior to elections
  •   insult laws that carry criminal penalties
  •   punitive tax inspections
  •   misuse of libel laws leading to the imposition of crippling fines
  •  beatings and torture of political opponents in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Consequences

Repression and violence, or the threat of it, is ever-present for many reporters, encouraging self-censorship as a survival mechanism. Investigative reporting is rare. As a rule, journalists avoid sensitive topics, and at most will reprint international media articles about taboo issues (although attributing a story to an outside source does not necessarily shield editors from prosecution.

The lack of official transparency and accountability means that journalists have a hard time corroborating facts. As a result, the regional press is often dominated by anecdotes and second-hand information. Stories of huge national importance and concern, such as HIV/AIDS, drug trafficking, military manoeuvres, and official corruption, are covered rarely and often inadequately. As a result there is little public trust in the press.

The citizens of Central Asia are denied access to information. Absence of public debate about issues allows repressive regimes to stay in power. But if democratic reforms are to take place, ordinary people must have the opportunity to learn about issues of real concern to them, in order to debate them and press their leaders for change.

Recommendations to the Subcommittees

The conflict in Afghanistan and concerns about international terrorism and the narcotics and weapons trade make Central Asia of growing strategic importance to U.S. security interests. Energy issues, particularly with regard to Kazakhstan, are also high on the U.S. economic agenda.

These factors mean an increasing need for engagement. It is in the interests of the U.S. as well as the people of Central Asia to back policies that encourage respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, greater accountability of police and security services, the decriminalization of defamation laws, adopting a Freedom of Information law, and greater transparency in the ownership, management and funding of state-run media outlets, printing facilities, and distribution networks.

CPJ would like U.S. officials and lawmakers to make strong public and private statements that make clear the U.S. commitment to press freedom as a cornerstone of democracy. We would like those words to be backed up by action linking any cooperation or non-humanitarian aid to concrete improvements in freedom of expression. We would also call on you to support international organizations that support independent media in the region, such as the OSCE, the Eurasia Foundation, USAID, Internews, the Soros Foundation, and others.

The pressure on journalists is part of Central Asia's shocking human rights record. It is both our duty and in our interests to act to support those men and women who care enough about their fellow citizens and are courageous enough to risk their liberty, and sometimes their lives, to speak the truth.

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