Press freedom challenges continue in Central Asia
On my first trip as RFE/RL president, I chose to visit our bureaus in Central Asia, the “stans” that are unknown to many Western audiences, but which constitute a region of immense journalistic importance – and challenge – for RFE/RL. Our services in this vital region are among the only independent voices in media environments dominated by government-run media and increasingly subject to Russian and Chinese influence. Our services play a critical role, not just through the news and information they provide to millions in the region, but also in creating space in each national media ecosystem for other independent media to operate.
My first stop was to visit our bureau in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Our service in Tajikistan, known as Radio Ozodi, and our Current Time/Asia team, report in Tajik and Russian in a region bordered by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, China, and Afghanistan. Hundreds of Tajiks and their families went to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State; hundreds of thousands travel to Russia every year to work as labor migrants. Radio Ozodi covers stories from extremist recruiting and repatriation of ISIS fighters, to local and migrant economics, to local and regional politics and Russian and Chinese influence, to the impact of mass migration on women and children, and the impact of war that threatens to seep over the border from Afghanistan. This coverage, which is otherwise unavailable in Tajikistan, has made Ozodi the most popular Facebook page and the most popular YouTube channel in Tajikistan, according to Socialbakers. It also plays a key role in creating space for other local independent media. As one independent journalist told me, “because Ozodi reports A, B, and C, we can at least report A.”
Ozodi’s success has displeased the government, which, accustomed to controlling the press, is harassing Radio Ozodi’s journalists, chiefly by withholding their accreditation. Requests to accredit nine of our journalists have so far gone unanswered, in many cases for months, and in one case for two years. The credentials of nine more Ozodi journalists are set to expire on November 1. Tajik officials told me that they are regular readers of Radio Ozodi’s coverage, yet they seem unwilling to let Ozodi’s journalists do their jobs to bring that news and information to the broadest group of Tajik citizens possible. Our journalists will be undeterred by this pressure; even if the government continues to try to strangle our operations, we will find ways to bring objective news and information to a society that is demanding it.
My trip also took me to Kazakhstan, where years of political predictability have recently been upended by a change in government and the eruption of public unrest, particularly among the country’s younger generation. As one of the few independent outlets in a restrictive media landscape, Radio Azattyq, as our Kazakh Service is known, together with Current Time, is providing unparalleled coverage of the protests and the economic concerns and fears about China’s increasing role in that country that are driving unrest. The government has retaliated by repeatedly detaining our journalists and deploying provocateurs in plainclothes to interfere with our reporting and break our equipment. The police stand by during these attacks and have failed to investigate them, but we won’t be silent. I officially complained to the government about its failure to fulfill its duty to protect the press, and Azattyq’s journalists will continue to cover the stories that matter most to Kazakhs.
I ended my trip in Kyrgyzstan, politically the most liberal Central Asian state, where our Kyrgyz Service and Current Time break news, relentlessly pursue innovation, and produce investigative reporting out of our state-of-the-art bureau. Their reporting has helped attack official corruption and promote public accountability. Our journalists at Azattyk don’t face the same kind of physical intimidation and threats as their colleagues in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, but they have been the subject of smear campaigns, in part because of their indefatigable reporting to root out official corruption. While in Bishkek, I made clear that our team would not be deterred by such tactics.
Left off of this trip were two other countries where RFE/RL has important news services. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, we rely on incredibly intrepid contributors to help us gather news. Repression in both countries has prevented RFE/RL from opening up local bureaus there (RFE/RL was forced to close its bureau in Tashkent after the Andijon massacre in 2005). There are some signs of opening in Uzbekistan, but Turkmenistan is in a class of its own: RSF just downgraded it in this year’s annual World Press Index, placing it below North Korea. Hopefully others in the region, especially Tajikistan, will not follow Turkmenistan’s lead. Regardless, RFE/RL journalists across the region will continue to do their jobs to bring independent news and information to those who need it most.