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Crisis in Central Asia

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(Article changed on October 2, 2012 at 13:26)

(Article changed on October 2, 2012 at 13:24)

 Today in the news, much is being said about the human rights catastrophes occurring in Syria. The rebels and government forces have both committed human rights violations, but the weight of the crimes is undeniably on the side of the al-Assad regime. Protests in the Middle East over defamation of the prophet Mohammed have lead to an eruption in Egypt, and a more extreme raiding of an American embassy and subsequent killing of an ambassador in Libya. The supposed threat of Iran and the hawkish attitude of Israel is all over the media. The drone strikes supported eagerly by the Obama administration at least get some attention in the alternative media. However, there is virtual silence on what may be some of the worst human rights violations in the world. The five republics of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are all seeing increasing levels of government intrusion and disruption of private life. And the world remains silent partly because of ignorance, partly because some of these states are key allies in the global War on Terror.

To see just how severe human rights abuses have reached, one merely has to look at these five republics' record on freedom of the press, a guaranteed right in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The reason why freedom of the press was chosen above others is simple. No society can be considered free without a free media that allows for open, meaningful and controversial discussion of any issues that a country faces. All other rights depend on the ability to disseminate information. Description of abuses of this fundamental right will be the starting point for two reasons. First, although there are similarities between how free speech is suppressed, the differences are important not only for dissidents of Central Asian society, but protectors of liberty in our own country. Americans should be aware of what governments are capable of and the techniques used to censor the media in the 21st century. Oppressive states have gotten much cleverer than they were even forty years ago. Second, too often in social sciences the reader can lose sight among the esoteric terms and statistics that what (s)he is reading deals with real people. Hopefully, this will serve as a reminder of the importance of such a topic. The second section will demonstrate how American military aid helps maintain these regimes.

Human Rights Under Siege

There are some common themes among the Central Asian Republics' violations of media freedom. Most of the governments use "anti-defamation laws" which defend "the honor and dignity of the president...[and] carry penalties of fines and up to two years of detention either under house arrest or in prison" (HRW 1993). That is just the legal penalty. Journalists in the region risk far more such as "multiple forms of harassment, persuasive threats and actual harm...job insecurity, financial sanctions, intimidation through tax audits, bribery, license revocation, imprisonment, exile, and even assassination" (Freedman 12). Although these are common forms of media restrictions and journalistic dangers, Kazakhstan's situation is quite unique in Central Asia.

In 1997, the government under President Nursultan Nazarbaev auctioned off much of the state-run media to oligarchs, who had the resources to buy them (38). As the costs of obtaining the rights to electronic media became increasingly expensive, Kazakhstan "witnessed a concentration of ownership [of media outlets] in the hands of oligarchs" (39). By combining restrictive media censorship, fear and intimidation along with favoritism of certain oligarchs, the Kazakh media is nearly totally obedient. Within the president's inner circle are Nurtai Abykayev, Rakhat Aliev, Vladimir Kim and Timur Kulibaev, who all either own or have major influence in both Kazakhstan's light metals, industrial, oil or transportation sectors, as well as virtually all of Kazakhstan's media (41). A partially privatized media and a constitution declaring a free press as a right gives the outer appearance of a liberal society.

However, nothing can be further from the truth. Freedom House classifies Kazakh society as "not free" with a press freedom of "not free." Media independence rating has actually seen a decrease from a score of 5.5 in 1999 to 6.75 in 2010 (1 being most free and 7 being not free). In 1993, Karishal Asanov was arrested for publishing a book in which he states: "the habits of a dictator do not allow Mr. N. A. Nazarbaev to hide even under the cover of presidential power" (HRW 1993). Although by the end of 1993, the president repealed certain restrictions upon the media, the practice of violently censoring dissent continued (HRW 1995). When Nazarbaev dissolved parliament, a local newspaper in Karavan criticized him as anti-democratic until on March 23 1995 the journal's offices were burned down "in what some observers believed was political arson" (HRW 1996). The government continued to dissolved independent media including Respublika in May 2005, "the leading independent newspaper" (HRW 2006). By 2006, new amendments to the media laws gave "the government unlimited power to close independent and opposition media outlets" (HRW 2007).

The physical safety of opposition journalists is routinely in question. One critical of the president was severally beaten by what was believed to be security forces (2007). In the first half of 2010, five journalists were attacked (HRW 2011). The government has finally succeeded in classifying the internet as a form of mass media and is thus subject to the same censorship and controls as all other forms of media (Amnesty International).

Whereas Kazakhstan has loyalist corporate media, Turkmenistan has virtually total control over national mass media. It is the only one of the Central Asian Republics to maintain a Freedom House rating of 7 in media independence from 1999 to 2010 (Freedom House). Reporters Without Borders ranks it as 176 in the world for press freedom, just above Burma and North Korea. The state-run media is used in a Stalinist manner by promoting "the cult of personality of the national leadership" (Freedman 59). In 1992, a decree was announced that allowed "for the unlimited sale of [the president's] pictures to the population" (Vassiliev 136). Every broadcast on radio and television begins with "Allah, bless our leader, preserve his life for many years and help him in all his projects" (142). 

Anything short of overt praise of the president is subject to censorship. As Mukhammedmurat Salamatov, the founder of Daianach (Turkmenistan's first independent newspaper) learned in 1992, when he was arrested and "tried three times on charges of violating the republic's press law...[and] beaten by unknown individuals" (HRW 1993). The state authorities would frequently detain opposition journalists, bar them from working or harass their families (HRW 1994).

Towards 1994, President Niyazov demanded the consolidation of print media and several journals like Subbota were punished for their "insufficient praise" of Niyazov himself (HRW 1995). Even the Internet is not safe from government control. A campaign to root out and close all Internet cafes ended in 2005 when the "last remaining Internet club in Turkmenistan was shut down in April" (HRW 2006). Another form of punishment for dissenting journalists is abuse of psychiatric care. For publishing an open letter abroad about violations of human rights, "Kakabai Tejenov was subjected to nine months of forced psychiatric hospitalization" (HRW 2008). Even after President Niyazov's death and Berdymuhammedov's rise to power, repression and propaganda continue to plague mass media.

The common view of the Internet is that it is the last safe haven from government control. Yet, in Uzbekistan, "web sites of international and domestic human rights organizations, as well as sites of opposition-in-exile ...are permanently filtered and blocked" (Freedman 99). In Orwellian language, a law "On Principles and Guarantees of Freedom of Information" severely restricts the flow of information in the name of security (103). Human Rights Watch report in 1993 states that several members of the newspaper team for Birlik -- a popular opposition movement -- "were...hospitalized with serious head injuries...when a gang of unidentified men attacked and beat them with metal full view of law enforcement officials" who just finished interrogating them. By 2005, publicly defending or writing about human rights issues led to "increased harassment, surveillance, house arrest, interrogation, arbitrary arrest, criminal charges" and seizure of media equipment and publications (HRW 2006). Even mentioning the Andijan massacre warrants censorship or worse. The government has become more repressive in its control of the media ever since the 2005 atrocities, as indicated by its steady Freedom House rating of 6.75 for four years until where media independence dropped to a 7, where it remains today.

On the outside, Tajikistan appears to be slightly less oppressive than the other Central Asian Republics. In 2010, Freedom House gave it a 5.75, which was an improvement over the previous years rating of 6. During the brutal civil war from 1992-1997 however, the Popular Front and the Kuliabi regional faction "[took] revenge on newspapers and journalists who had been their sharpest critics" (HRW 1994). A government decree in 1994 "suspended the activities of the independent media" (HRW 1995). The state proceeded to nationalize much of the independent media. A variety of methods were used in order to silence dissent. State security forces shut down printing houses of opposition newspapers and closed "two private broadcasters...leaving the capital with no alternative to state television" (HRW 2006). However, what makes Tajikistan's free press violations interesting is the amount of self-censorship that occurs.

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I graduated from the University of Chicago with a MA in Social Sciences (concentration in Political Science) and a BA from Rutgers University in Political Science. I study social movements and the tactics that ordinary people use to make (more...)

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