11/23/2022, 00.00
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Press freedom gagged in Central Asia

by Vladimir Rozanskij

In all the former Soviet republics, the activities of independent media are restricted. Many sites blacked out. In Kyrgyzstan, real repression is taking place. The authorities defend their privileges and those of the elites who support them. The war in Ukraine does not help.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - There is growing alarm over the continuing restrictions on freedom of the press and of expression in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia, where it is not permitted to openly denounce widespread corruption and the inestimable omnipresence of the "power families" that control the life of societies. Radio Azattyk, whose contributors and correspondents are increasingly persecuted, has been devoting many reports to this issue for days.

Since the July uprising in Karakalpakstan, the independence region of Uzbekistan, the authorities have almost silenced the private news site Gazeta.uk. The government has censored all news related to these riots and the subsequent protests, replacing them with the laconic phrase 'deleted material'. Following much criticism from users, the executive reinstated some material, but it is not known until when.

Similarly, Turkmenistan has no independent news dissemination centres, while Kyrgyzstan has recently seen an increase in repression so as not to disturb the state's manoeuvres to assert its territorial and economic claims. The situation in Biškek has worsened since January, when Omon (special units) guards forced their way into the office of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov, who was later arrested and charged with drug possession.

In October, the Kyrgyz authorities blocked Azattyk's bank account and local website. Reason: the reports on the border conflict between Kyrgyz and Tajiks, which according to the government "fomented inter-ethnic hostility" and spread false information, giving too much space to Tajikistan's reasons, in a conflict that left more than 100 dead - Azattyk had refused to delete videos of the clashes.

In solidarity with the independent radio station, several news sites joined in a day of protest on 26 October, excluding all news for a few hours and ignoring all press releases from the government in Biškek for the entire day. Only the words 'There is no news: there is media repression' appeared on the screens.

A group of 'demonstrators' broke into Azattyk's office, demanding the closure of Kloop and KaktusMedia as well. They then threatened to set fire to the office with petrol or 'other extreme measures' if the parliament did not 'expel all traitorous journalists'.

In Kazakhstan too, there have been several incidents of crossing the 'red line' of press freedom, with the local section of Radio Azattyk and other sites such as Public Eye being blocked after news about the business interests of President Tokaev and his family abroad came out.

Above all, the investigation into the renovation of the UN conference hall in Geneva, during the time when Tokaev was a career diplomat and headed the section, has angered the Kazakh high authorities. The restoration, paid for by the government of Kazakhstan, included works by the artist Batimu Zaurbekova, Tokaev's son's mother-in-law, with mural strips paid for in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the general considerations of the last decade, Uzbekistan is seen as the country that has made the most progress in expanding press freedom, but only because the previous 25 years of Islam Karimov's regime had kept it at the low level of Soviet times.

Even Mirziyoyev's executive often proves to be rather susceptible to criticism, as in the case of Karakalpakstan. The Uzbek site of Radio Ozodlik, the local branch of Radio Svoboda, has been blocked inside the country for years anyway.

Tajikistan is no exception, with arrests and convictions of independent journalists and bloggers on specious charges, mainly to prevent them from reporting on the bloody repressions in the Gorno-Badakšan autonomous region since May. The private news agency Asia Pljus warned its readers that it was unable to guarantee complete information due to the authorities' threats of 'activities hostile to the internal stability of the country'.

The Russian conflict in Ukraine, which puts the Central Asian governments in serious discomfort in international political and economic relations, certainly does not help the strengthening of freedom of expression.

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