Media Watch and Journalism Rights Organisations as Advocates of Press Freedom in Post-Soviet Central Asia

Article excerpt

In the bleak press rights territory of post-Soviet Central Asia, domestic and international nong-overnmental organisations, foreign governments, news outlets, and multinational entities such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and UNESCO monitor constraints on the press. They also protest censorship and decry journalists' arrests, prosecutions, harassment, and murders.

Today, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remain alarmingly draconian with regard to censorship and "soft" repression, or self-censorship, of journalists, while retaining tight control of mass media outlets. Repression is a cynical reality in that all five constitutions explicitly promise protection of press freedom. While their press systems are not monolithic or identical--for example, they vary in the proportion of non-state media outlets, existence of official censorship bodies, and journalist salaries--there are key commonalities that enable scholars and policymakers to look at the media environment on a regional, as well as country-to-country level. These controls impede the formation of press systems that may lead to better governance, reduce corruption, and encourage dissemination and critique of news and information that potentially contributes to expansion of human rights and national development (Price, 2011; Shafer & Freedman, 2009). Although it is too early to assess any significant expansion of journalists' rights in Kyrgyzstan, it is--on a comparative basis within the region--best positioned to travel the road to liberalisation after its second grassroots-driven change of governments and its transformation in 2010 from a presidential to parliamentary system.

This article begins with a discussion of the press before 1991 and the professional foundations that conceptualised the Soviet press as a tool to build the state and further Communist revolutionary goals. Those foundations mutated into the concept of the post-Soviet press as a tool to build independent states, mold national identities, and aggrandise and entrench ruling elites. These regimes have generally proven hostile to other key civil society elements, such as multiple parties, political rights, rights to free speech and religious practice, aggressive opposition to corruption, freedom of association, government transparency, and free and fair elections.

Most post-independence presidents in Central Asia since 1991 were formerly Communist Party leaders, educated and trained under the Soviet system. That status helps explain the difficulties that prevent current press systems from evolving into robust, independent, watchdogs of democracy that journalists and civil society proponents advocate as most effective in developed and democratic nations.

Democratic press promoters hailed the break-up of the Soviet as a huge blow to 19th Century colonialism and to the further subjugation of Central Asians and Eurasians by European Russians. In many ways, these newly independent countries did succeed at nation-building. Fairbanks says the regimes assumed the major role once held by the central government in Moscow, including: directing most of the economy, selecting officials, setting foreign policy, and controlling military and intelligence services. Many citizens are suspicious of authority, he writes, and "in the absence of efforts to organise and mobilise society, or to disguise the nature of rule, there is a yawning chasm between the rulers and the ruled" (Fairbanks, 2001).

Considering these historical implications and present situations, both traditional and new "journalists" and media outlets are subject to strict government controls, while the rapid spread of new communication technologies makes it harder to fully control information. Expanded Internet access and the growing use of social media make it easier for more citizens to find news, information, and viewpoints outside regime controls. …