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Helsinki Commission Decries Central Asia’s Imprisoned Press Freedoms

Washington – As World Press Freedom Day approaches this Saturday, May 3, the United States Helsinki Commission is highlighting the extraordinary intimidation tactics and restrictions on freedom of the press throughout the Central Asian region.

There is no freedom of the press at all in some Central Asian countries. In others, journalists who try to expose government officials’ misdeeds and corruption have been singled out for intimidation. Some have been arrested, in cases most objective observers consider politically motivated; others have been silenced by lawsuits brought by officials who claim their honor has been offended.

In recent years freedom of the press has deteriorated most noticeably in Kazakhstan. A dead dog was placed outside the office of an opposition newspaper. Attached to a screwdriver in the dog’s body was a note that read “there won’t be a next time.” The daughter of an editor who wrote about international investigations into President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s alleged corruption died in police custody. This week, Nazarbaev’s political adviser Ermuhamet Ertysbaev said media freedom will soon be reduced further.

The fate of Sergei Duvanov illustrates the risks faced by journalists who focus on high-level corruption. Last August, three men beat and mutilated Duvanov, warning that if he did not cease his activity, “We will cripple you.” In November, he was arrested on charges of raping a minor. Though he denied the accusation and the judge acknowledged procedural flaws in the trial, he has been sentenced to three and a half years in jail. A report by a Dutch diplomat argues that the charges were fabricated by Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leadership to silence Duvanov.

Under President Askar Akaev, freedom of the press has diminished in Kyrgyzstan. Freedom of speech and the press are severely restricted. One year ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists included Kyrgyzstan among the world’s ten worst places to be a journalist. Independent and opposition newspapers have been heavily fined by courts ruling in favor of government officials who sued for libel. Newspapers such as Asaba, Vechernii Bishkek, Res Publica and Moya Stolitsahave all been targeted; some have had to close temporarily or have been taken over by pro-government management.

Journalists in Kyrgyzstan are subjected to harassment, intimidation, and violence, although an opposition newspaper launched in 1998 continues to publish, some small NGO-run television stations are functioning, and the Asia Plus radio station has received a license.

Under the megalomaniacal misrule of Saparmurat Niyazov, there is no freedom of the media in Turkmenistan, the only one-party state left in all of Eurasia.

Despite President Islam Karimov’s formal lifting of censorship, there is no freedom of the press in Uzbekistan. Journalists practice self-censorship and the possession or distribution of banned material – of a religious nature or opposition publications – can bring long prison terms.

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