Attacks on the Press 2005: Europe & Central Asia Analysis

Free Expression Takes a Back Seat
By Alex Lupis 
To gain military footing and access to energy resources in the former Soviet empire, the United States has diverted its attention from human rights and press freedom issues in Eurasia. The U.S. policy of close cooperation with the region’s authoritarian leaders has undermined free and independent reporting in several Eurasian nations–from Russia, where coverage of the Chechen rebels is itself likened to terrorism, to Kazakhstan, where the government has waged a vast campaign to censor critical news reporting.

Nowhere are the inherent conflicts between U.S. security policies and free expression more evident than in Uzbekistan, where government forces, including members of a U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit known as Bars, opened fire on antigovernment protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in May. Hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed, according to independent accounts.

After the massacre–which the government denied and obscured–Uzbek forces imposed an information blockade, intensified legal persecution of independent journalists, and waged a smear campaign linking reporters to Islamic terrorists. CPJ and other press organizations documented dozens of cases of government-sponsored threats, detentions, searches, and assaults against journalists from several news organizations.

The Andijan killings raised some of the most troubling questions yet about U.S. policies in Eurasia. In a bid to promote stability and reform in the region, President George W. Bush’s administration provided expanded U.S. training of Uzbek security forces, while gaining permission for a U.S. military presence in the southern Karshi region. The Bush administration appeared to gamble that expanded U.S.-Uzbek diplomatic relations could moderate the policies of the country’s dictator, President Islam Karimov.

In the aftermath of Andijan, the United States responded less assertively in public than did the European Union. Within a week of the massacre, the EU called for an independent, international inquiry. In October, it imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan and visa restrictions on officials implicated in the killings. By contrast, the Bush administration initially called for a “credible” and “transparent” domestic inquiry. U.S. diplomats did work to prevent the forced repatriation of refugees from Andijan, but it wasn’t until mid-June that the White House called for an international inquiry into the Andijan slaughter. All the while, U.S. officials were reticent about addressing the Uzbek government’s campaign of intimidation and repression of the independent media.

Despite the moderated U.S. response, Karimov moved in late July to evict U.S. forces from the Karshi-Khanabad air base.

The U.S. government’s efforts to improve ties in the region were understandable. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe declared that “it is critical to the interests of the United States that we greatly enhance our relations” with the former Soviet republics. To help overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists, the Pentagon negotiated landing rights at airports throughout the region and established bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support operations in Afghanistan. It also expanded training of local security forces. The State Department expanded diplomatic relations, pushed for greater U.S. access to oil and natural gas reserves, and pressed local authorities to secure nuclear material left over from the former Soviet Union.

The White House argued that closer cooperation would strengthen U.S. leverage to promote democratic reforms in the region. “Any deepening or broadening of our cooperation will depend on continued progress in respecting human rights and democracy,” Lorne Craner, then assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs, said in June 2002. The State Department, in fact, can point to a number of specific efforts on behalf of press freedom in Eurasia. Diplomats repeatedly called for accountability in the 2004 slaying of Paul Klebnikov, an American editor killed in Moscow; they assisted journalists covering the conflict in the Russian republic of Chechnya; and they publicly backed the Azerbaijani television station ANS when it was harassed by the government. Craner’s successor, Daniel Fried, told reporters in October that while the administration was realistic about what could be done, “we are very clear about what we want.”

Yet the greatest U.S. leverage has not materialized at critical moments in strategically important countries. In May 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sidestepped Congressional restrictions on U.S. aid to Uzbekistan by claiming that Uzbek authorities were making democratic reforms, despite continued censorship of the media and imprisonment of journalists, among other abuses. When the State Department withheld $18 million in aid because of human rights abuses the following year, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the step as “shortsighted” and boosted military aid by $24 million.

Karimov and his subordinates were eager to use antiterror language as political cover to suppress independent news reporting–and the Bush administration was reluctant to challenge them. In September, Uzbek Deputy Prosecutor General Anvar Nabiyev accused local journalists and foreign correspondents working for the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,, and the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) of “providing informational support to terrorism” with their reporting on Andijan. At least four journalists working for the IWPR–including 2005 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Galima Burkharbeava–fled the country after being threatened with criminal prosecution.

Journalists have also been accused of helping terrorists in neighboring Russia, where cooperation between the Bush administration and the Kremlin on combating terrorism and securing nuclear facilities has sidelined U.S. efforts to promote democracy and press freedom. The Kremlin’s control over vast oil and gas reserves, powerful security services, and political influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia made Russia a key strategic ally in the “war on terror.”

The Bush administration has remained largely silent in response to the Kremlin’s growing harassment of the media, its takeover of national television, and its indifference to the unsolved murders of 12 journalists since 2000. Despite these troubling developments, Bush warmly welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House in September, calling him “a strong ally in Russia in fighting the war on terror” and saying that “we’ll work to advance freedom and democracy in our respective countries and around the world.”

Since Putin came to power in 2000, reporting on the war in Chechnya has become acutely sensitive because each new attack or public statement by Chechen rebels undermines the president’s claim that Russia is winning the war against the separatists. CPJ has documented more than 70 serious cases of harassment, threats, obstruction, detention, and assaults against journalists since the second Chechen war began six years ago.

Russian authorities have increasingly accused journalists reporting on Chechnya of supporting terrorists, and they have relied more frequently on antiterror and antiextremist laws to suppress coverage of statements made by Chechen rebel leaders. In September, for example, prosecutors in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod charged Stanislav Dmitiyevsky, editor-in-chief of the monthly human rights newspaper Pravo-Zashchita, with inciting ethnic and religious hatred for publishing statements by Chechen rebel leaders calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The Kremlin also intensified pressure on foreign media reporting on Chechnya. When the ABC News program “Nightline” broadcast an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev in July, the Foreign Ministry said the interview supported “the propaganda of terrorism,” barred ABC reporters from speaking with government officials, and said the journalists’ accreditation would not be renewed.

The U.S. government carefully sought to distance itself from the program while affirming ABC’s right to broadcast the interview. “The U.S. government has had no involvement in ABC’s decision to air the interview,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “The U.S. government has no authority to prevent ABC from exercising its constitutional right to broadcast the interview.”

Throughout the region, the United States has tempered its message on press and human rights issues in relation to its strategic concerns. Two oil-rich countries on the Caspian Sea–Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan–have poor media freedom records but have benefited from growing cooperation with the U.S. military and U.S. energy companies.

In Azerbaijan, the Bush administration welcomed Ilham Aliyev when he came to power in October 2003 elections, despite widespread voting irregularities and police violence against protesters and the media. While Azerbaijani authorities imprisoned an opposition editor and used security forces and politicized courts to silence critical media, the United States worked to expand cooperation with Aliyev’s government. In the summer, U.S. officials struggled to balance praise for the government’s opening of a strategic oil pipeline and its decision to allow the United States to upgrade Soviet-era radar facilities, with calls for fair parliamentary elections and a proper investigation into the murder of a journalist who had strongly criticized Aliyev.

In Kazakhstan, the Bush administration broadened ties with authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ignored mild U.S. criticism for consolidating control over local independent and opposition media. In 2005, Nazarbayev’s government prevented the printing of several independent and opposition newspapers, seized entire press runs of critical publications, closed an opposition weekly, and repeatedly blocked an opposition Web site.

Nazarbayev has shrewdly balanced U.S. and Russian competition for regional influence to attract oil and gas investments and military cooperation. Kazakhstan, a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, also provided logistical support for U.S. forces operating nearby in Afghanistan and sent troops to participate in U.S.-led operations in Iraq.

U.S. policies have not been uniformly passive in regard to free expression. Kyrgyzstan hosted U.S. military forces at the Manas air base outside Bishkek, but U.S.-backed democracy programs nonetheless helped fuel the popular March uprising that ousted authoritarian President Askar Akayev. U.S. programs not only trained political parties and election monitors, they helped establish the country’s first independent printing press, ensuring critical coverage even as the government tried to crack down on the media. When Kyrgyz authorities cut off power to the printing facility in February, the U.S. embassy stepped in with generators that enabled the printer to continue functioning.

The United States invested more in democracy assistance in Kyrgyzstan than in any other former Soviet republic, but there were fewer hard choices to be made there between its own security concerns and Kyrgyzstani rights of free expression. Kyrgyzstan had few energy resources and little Islamic militancy. Akayev had allowed some journalists, human rights activists, and opposition parties to question government policies, and his government did not force the United States into choosing military needs over civil liberties.

But the greatest inconsistency in the Bush administration’s promotion of human rights and media freedom was apparent in its treatment of the region’s two worst dictators: Turkmenistan’s self-proclaimed “president for life,” Saparmurat Niyazov, and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Niyazov has imposed a brutal Stalinist dictatorship in Turkmenistan that controls all local media and bars access to foreign news. Even journalists living in exile in Moscow are placed under surveillance and assaulted by Turkmen security agents for not promoting Niyazov’s agenda, CPJ research shows. But the Bush administration has developed cordial relations with Niyazov because Turkmenistan has large natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea and has granted the U.S. military permission to station troops in Turkmenistan to service cargo planes en route to Afghanistan.

Senior U.S. officials regularly praise Niyazov for security-related cooperation and raise human rights and press freedom issues infrequently and politely. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Laura Kennedy visited the capital, Ashgabad, in February and said she “appreciated the opportunity to discuss some areas of particular concern to the U.S. government, including religious freedom, the development of civil society, access to prisoners, resumption of [Russian] Radio Mayak broadcasting, and some other issues.”

Yet Belarus, which has few energy resources and little strategic role in the antiterrorism fight, has faced intense U.S. criticism for its human rights and press freedom abuses. Indeed, under Lukashenko, the secretive and powerful Belarusian bureaucracy has created a climate of fear for journalists and has nearly erased the independent press.

“It is time for change to come to Belarus…the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in April after meeting with a group of Belarusian opposition activists in neighboring Lithuania. Rice warned the Belarusian government that its behavior was being watched by the international community. “This is not a dark corner in which things can go unobserved, uncommented on,” she told reporters.

The Bush administration’s forceful call for change in Belarus was more than justified. But its advocacy for free expression in Eurasia has been selective, coming mainly in the absence of competing security and energy concerns. At the same time, the administration’s antiterrorism agenda has made it easier for the region’s resourceful authoritarian leaders to justify repressive media policies in the name of security. Leaders in Uzbekistan and Russia have draped censorship in antiterror clothing, moves largely unchallenged by the United States.

By using selective standards, the Bush administration lost valuable leverage in its efforts to promote free expression, independent media, and the broader process of democratization in some former Soviet republics.

Alex Lupis is senior program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia.