CyberChaikhana’s media chapter: “When the pen runs dry”
The remaining two rough drafts to be released this week are, like the Turkmenistan and Tajikistan chapters of last week, re-releases. In other words, you’ve seen these rough drafts before, but in a far less developed state than now. Today we’re running the media chapter, previously revealed under the same title in October 2009. The big difference in this re-release is the depth to which it explores its theme, namely, the problems facing independent media in the region. Among other things, the updated draft incorporates much of Alpharabius’ remarkable coverage of the lawsuit crisis in Tajikistan, the news of which broke in the first half of this year.
From an editorial perspective, this chapter was a controversial one. For one, there was a debate between Ben and I as to whether a chapter with this topic should even be included in CyberChaikhana. Ben was concerned that it would be too introspective and unoriginal — what could we possible say about the crummy media situation in Central Asia that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I felt that it was too necessary to omit — the longevity of some of the region’s regimes is unintelligible without explaining how the media works, or for that matter, doesn’t work. In the end we compromised, agreeing to leaven some of the inevitable problems of this chapter with content as dynamic and multifaceted as possible.
For another, this chapter contains both a post explicitly written by me and a post-series which was commissioned by the project. The post by me, “The Stars Our Destination?”, was part of Annasoltan’s initial series about the Turkmenet, and it’s a bit hyperbolic, as I’m wont to do in my own writing. Since I’m already writing the book, it risks seeming self-indulgent to include one of my own posts. Yet, I ultimately decided that it was the only post best fitted for the development of the chapter. I’d like to hear everyone else’s thoughts, though.
As to the the post-series, “The Unreality of Journalism”, this was written by Musafirbek Ozod, was commissioned by me in order to plug a gap in coverage about media in Uzbekistan, one which Musafirbek and I knew existed but which we hadn’t yet seen explicitly blogged about. His own experience as a journalism student and cub reporter in the country was key to making the series the success that it became. Unlike my post — the inclusion of which is, perhaps, still debatable — these posts are absolutely essential to the chapter, as well as to the Uzbekistan chapter.
When the Pen Runs Dry
It has been said that information is the lifeblood of democracies, but in Central Asia, information itself could use a good injection of hemoglobin. The situation for journalism in the region is often grim. Cover-ups, censorship, and intimidation of journalists are routine. The whitewashing of events is sometimes unapologetically blatant, as American journalist Joshua Kucera noticed in Turkmenistan…
All the news that’s fit to print? I tried for a long time to find local newspapers in Turkmenistan. I saw several newsstands in markets, but they all had only Russian newspapers, a couple of days old. And I never once saw anyone carrying or reading a newspaper. Finally, when I went to a post office, I found a big selection of local papers. As they each cost 500 manat, about 2 cents, I bought every one they had. But as I found out, there was no need to buy them all—although they had different names, different fonts and whatnot, all had absolutely identical front pages.
Most of the inside pages were the same, too. One of the biggest stories was the progress of the ongoing wheat harvest, with details of how much each region and sub-region was pulling in. The wheat harvest also was a staple of the TV news. Sadly, my hotel room didn’t have any local channels, so my Turkmen TV viewing was limited to a couple of snippets I saw in people’s houses. But there were four channels, three of which usually also showed identical programming. The fourth was in various foreign languages, including English, making it especially sad I didn’t get to watch much.
… or as human rights activist Ivar Dale noticed in Uzbekistan…
Paradise news service—I open my eyes and realize a recent acquaintance is in my room. He’s standing next to my bed, and I have no idea how he got in. It’s 6:30 AM.
“Get up!” he yells, “Get dressed!” “What?” “Get up! We don’t have much time.” “What the hell is…” “We’re going to a wedding!”
Fifteen minutes later I’m in a car with my new friend and his cousin. We pass the grandiose Registan with its awesome minarets, then drive on through the Samarkand suburbs, into the countryside. After a week in Uzbekistan, this is the second wedding I’ve been dragged off to.
The cousin is smiling at me in the rear view mirror, seemingly exhilarated to have a dead tired foreigner in his car. “So, what do you think about Uzbekistan?” he asks. “Great,” I say. “Really, you think it’s great?” “Totally great. Beautiful.” “And what more do you think? What else?” “Well, it’s weird how you have no newspapers,” I say, “At least I haven’t been able to find any.” He looks over at my friend, who shrugs. The he turns around in his seat and says, “But Uzbeks don’t read newspapers.” “So how do you get any news?” “Well, there are news on TV.” “But we don’t really watch them,” my friend adds. “No, no, we do sometimes,” protests the cousin. “But we have a joke about it: when the news come on, and then we yell, ‘Look! News from Paradise!’”
…or silenced by authorities, sometimes masked as a legitimate judicial process, as in the case of Tajikistan.
Convenient dignity—Three judges, two of them members of the Supreme Court of Tajikistan, have conspired to punish three independent newspapers for publishing a sensational story about unlawful conviction practices at the courts.
Supreme Court judges Nur Nurov and Ulugbek Mamadshoev and a judge of the Dushanbe City Court Fakhriddin Dodometov filed separate lawsuits against the newspapers Asia-Plus, Faraj, and Ozodagon for publishing a letter by lawyer Solijona Juraev in which he accuses the very same judges of making biased court decisions and imposing illegal penalties. Juraev is also being sued. They are being collectively charged under articles 142 and 143 of the Civil Procedure Code for libel and humiliation of honor and dignity.
The plaintiffs complain that the letter was published without either verification of facts or balancing it by publishing an opposing opinion. They are demanding moral damages payment in the amount of one million USD, an impossible sum beyond the ability of the Tajik independent media to pay, hence leading them to permanent closure. Not surprisingly, they are also insisting on suspending the papers until the end of the litigation.
The newspapers contend that they did not violate the law. They say that they sought out the judges, but the Supreme Court was ready to neither deny nor confirm. Ozodagon succeeded in interviewing one of the judges by phone. Meanwhile, Asia-Plus published the second part of the story after an extended interview with the state prosecutors of the scandalous criminal case against a former deputy and his 30 co-workers, relatives, and friends in Isfara. During this case the Supreme Court sentenced all 31 suspects to 10-25 years in prison, accusing them of fraud, tax evasion, robbery, killing and establishing a gang.
However, now both the lawyer (who went to speak out through the newspapers) and the state prosecutor believe that the judges made a biased decision prompted by the “phone law”, ignoring many important facts that do not fit the indictments. The “phone law”, by the way, is a Soviet era habit when court decisions were not bounded by law but a phone call from “above”.
The newspapers are ready to fight to the end. Yet, they understand that it will be hard to defend themselves in Tajikistan’s antiquated Soviet-style and deeply corrupted judiciary system. Indeed, some judges do not even try to hide their hatred attitude towards the press and journalists. In fact, now it seems the Supreme Court has found a way to both silence journalists and profit in the process. Indeed, three prominent newspapers were closed down by court decisions in the last two years.
The recent lawsuit comes only a week after the Dushanbe City Court upheld the verdict of the district court in the suit of the state Tajikstandart (Agency on Standardization, Metrology, Certification Trade Inspection under the Government of Tajikistan) against the independent newspaper Paykon. The decision resulted in an approximately 70,000 USD fine. It is doubtful that the paper can survive after that payment.
This past Thursday, 28 January, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a similar lawsuit against the independent newspaper Millat, asking the court to defend its “dignity” and reputation. The newspaper had accused the Ministry of being the most corrupt of all state institutions, an accusation made upon the findings of a parliamentary investigation. The Ministry has demanded approximately 230,000 USD to compensate for moral damage caused by the accusation.
Why have official institutions of the Republic of Tajikistan suddenly remembered their “honor”, “dignity”, reputation? I say: either because of the imminent parliamentary elections (28 February) or due to the fact that President Emomali Rahmon often requires members of the government to respond to press accusations. Indeed, on 29 January, Rahmon publicly disclosed his displeasure with the Supreme Court’s behavior. It’s great that he did so, but alas, I doubt it will be enough to save the independent Tajik press from judicial wrath.
It is thus perhaps appropriate that the news itself is correspondingly depressing, as the following post by Nafisa laments.
All news is bad news—Reading policy papers or journalist articles about Central Asia is not the most pleasant occupation. I don’t understand why, but usually reading about this region, I need to get prepared emotionally for the negativism. Shame, sadness, frustration, anger, depression, hopelessness, ignorance, and other negative feelings strike me while reading. Indeed, the more I read, the less I seem to know.
Maybe in Europe this is just the style with you write about this region. Maybe they do not know enough to make a more comprehensive analysis. Maybe they just can’t be bothered, and so only analyze through Western lenses.
These writers aren’t evil; they simply aren’t. I hear journalists all the time say terrible things about Uzbekistan, and then in the next moment pronounce love for Uzbekistan, the people, the cities, etc. They know their audience wants to hear horror. But it is not only Western reporters who are negative; locals are the same. No matter what aspect is in focus—human rights, democracy, economic development, security, religion, society, minorities, etc., etc.—they are full of problems and disappointments.
Yet, the story is not as simple as journalists = good guys, government = bad guys. Take Kazakhstan for example, wherein journalists contend with the ethical intricacies of capitalism and the news cycle, as the next post shows:
If it bleeds, it leads… A year ago a businessman in Kazakhstan invited journalists to a meeting during which he cut off one of his fingers. He committed this act because he screwed up his business, then was not satisfied with court proceedings when he tried to return his money from his partners. After that he succeeded in getting some money back.
Today, again in the presence of journalists, the businessman cut off another finger, because he did not succeed in returning everything. The cameraman of one of the TV-channels fainted during the act. So, the question is whether it is ok (in terms of ethics and economics) to show stories like this on TV news or should it be banned from airing?
On the one hand, there is some “action” in this story, which would surely capture the audience’s attention, boost ratings, and, consequently, increase profits. On the other hand, this person is not a starving mother of many children; he is just a man with an obviously unbalanced mental state, who is trying to blackmail society in a quite disgusting way.
The same is true for English-speaking expatriates in the region. In fact, even if they are willing to pay big bucks, they may still get gypped on quality.
When the press isn’t free (literally)—Private newspapers that cover Central Asia are not free, and are, in fact, prohibitively expensive for many potential local readers, to say nothing of poor US grad students like myself. Number one on my shit list is the Times of Central Asia, founded by Giorgio Fiacconi, honorary Italian consul in Kyrgyzstan. The subscription rate is $130/year for the online edition. Then there’s the Central Asian News service, subscription starting at a cool $190/year. For comparison, the New York Post online edition is about $93/year, while the slightly more respectable Wall Street Journal online edition is about $130/year when they throw in the print edition, and $100/year without.
My point is that in this era, when I would rather not pay for what I’ll get from MSNBC, Google News, or Yahoo for free, who is their target audience? Being a student, I’m under the lovely umbrella of JSTOR and Lexis-Nexis, offering most major periodicals to me, already paid by a portion of my tuition. I can’t imagine that the same person willing to plop down a C-note and change for the New York Post in his email is about to pay for the latest headlines from Bishkek
In recent years, blogs have been a very important venue for providing useful analysis and criticism. Bloggers have demonstrated rapid-fire response times to breaking news and have been critical to generating awareness about problems. Nevertheless, doubts linger. One reason is because they may be conceptually unviable in the region in the long-run, as Nathan of Registan.net remarks:
Virtual unreality—Bloggers, especially those of 2002-2004 vintage, are pretty much parasites: we consume and reprocess other media. So those of us who built their schtick around blogging on Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, have had a hard time of it the past couple years. There has been less reporting on the region, and while there was always plenty of bad reporting on the region from 2001-2005, it sometimes seems that the proportion of fairly uninformative or downright bad reporting on the region has risen from 2006-2009.
It’s an unfortunate state of reporting about the region, particularly on Uzbekistan. Although there still are those like Forum 18, Ferghana.ru, RFE/RL, EurasiaNet, etc., it’s damned difficult to do good reporting on anything but big geopolitics and energy deals. Consumers of information are even more removed from news on social issues and human rights.
Another reason is the media landscape the Central Asian republics. Internet accessibility is as limited as internet censorship is ubiquitous:
Children of the future? An optimistic picture is emerging: every citizen of Turkmenistan may forget about the slow and unreliable dial-up. It’s like a fairy tale! But it all depends on an important question: how much it will cost? If an hour in an internet cafe costs about 60,000 manat ($3-4), then high speed wireless internet will definitely be out of the reach of most citizens. We just have to wait and see, all the while envying the kindergartners.
Lifestyles of the rich and cybernetic—Internet censorship in Uzbekistan has been visibly ever-present and, at the same time, publicly denied by the government on numerous occasions. The issue, although not as pressing as imprisonment of human rights activists, economic decline, and political corruption, is undoubtedly crucial for democratic developments in the country and, unfortunately, is here to stay.
However, it is worth to tone down emotions and ask just how effective is internet censorship in a country that is slowly embracing new technologies. What really puts the country lagging behind many others on the information superhighway is not an almighty internet censorship policy, but a simple (and very often ignored) fact that internet access is still a luxury that many people cannot afford.
Internet censorship actually only affects a small number of users. Let’s face it, internet in Uzbekistan is still pretty much an attribute of the “lavish” lifestyle of local elites and expatriates. Even with the growing number of internet cafés (mainly in the capital Tashkent) with affordable prices, only a small amount of the population can still be considered “wired”.
In Uzbekistan, internet censorship is actually very easy to technically circumvent. It becomes more and more difficult to contain information in this era of rapidly developing technology. For every blocked web site there are hundreds of mirrors, proxies, cache services, virtual private networks or just something like SESAWE with simple handy tools to bypass any censorship online. That is why it is legitimate to claim that the internet blockade in Uzbekistan is nothing more than just a naive attempt to stop the unstoppable.
Many people motivated enough to gain access to Ferghana.ru or, well, neweurasia.net, can easily do so through numerous proxy services, RSS feeds, e-mails, etc. Local and foreign employees of numerous embassies and already-not-so-numerous international organizations in Uzbekistan certainly have more internet freedoms than a regular citizen. Although politically sensitive web sites are also blocked in those organizations, the employees are knowledgeable enough to bypass the restrictions within the matter of seconds.
Conversely, accessibility and repression can sometimes be deeply mingled, as this book’s editor explores in the following post:
The stars our destination? It’s a philosophical riddle as old as when humanity first learned to harness the power of fire: will technology bring freedom or slavery? Lately, observers of Turkmenistan find themselves asking this very question about the Internet.
Turkmenistan has one of the world’s lowest rates of Internet penetration. According to Internetworldstats.com, a website that measures global Internet access, a meager 1.4 percent of Turkmenistan’s population is wired, putting the country in 216th place out of 226.
When Berdimuhammedov ascended to the Turkmen presidency, he vowed to expand the Internet here. Few believed him at the time. Yet, remarkably, it now seems that he is actually intent on keeping his word.
In September, Turkmenistan has hosted an IT-themed exhibition called “Turkmentel 2009”, and not long afterwards the government declared its intention to launch the nation’s first-ever communications satellite. Meanwhile, senior students of Balkanabat Professional School have begun learnin about Web 2.0 technologies.
There is now appearing a veritable “Turkmenet” which, although small, is energetic. Its rise has already seen the diverse phenomena, ranging from the dissemination of political Hip Hop songs in the Turkmen language to Islamic revivalism on Facebook.
A salient moment came on 12 September, when riots erupted between Turkmen and Chinese workers for a Chinese energy company in the Samandepe region of eastern Turkmenistan. According to RFE/RL, the Turkmen workers had complained of poor working conditions and wage discrimination.
neweurasia’s Annasoltan reported on the intensely angry reactions toward the government’s response on online forums, including comparisons of native Turkmen workers to the Uighurs of China. Remarkably, the Turkmen government did nothing to stop the criticism. In fact, it even re-activated Ashgabad.ru, a very active and critical online forum for residents of the capital.
“Something is brewing online,” Annasoltan observes.
Thinking about the satellite announcement, I’ve got to wonder at the authorities’ motivations: if not the stars, what is Berdimuhammedov’s destination?
Given the government’s consistently grievous track record on human rights, the ideas that the government may actually envision a free and unfettered internet as useful to the country’s development strains credulity. So, too, would be proposing that the authorities have simply been naïve, caught off guard by the power of the internet.
A more frightening possibility, then, is that the authorities actually want digital dissent. On the one hand, it could be useful to vent pent up anger; on the other hand, it may even lure out malcontents in order to catalog them for future elimination. It’s an Orwellian proposition, yes, but Turkmenistan wouldn’t be the first totalitarian regime to try such a strategy.
As always with this shadowy government, it is impossible to know its motivations. But one fact is clear: they are playing a dangerous game. As recent events in Iran have shown, the Internet, once unleashed, is infectious and resilient. It carves out new and ever-shifting spaces of personal freedom too slippery for state control. It is within these spaces that dissatisfaction finds its voice. Dissidents, newly cyberized, discover that they are not alone and that there is strength in numbers, even binary ones.
The interplay of media, politics, and access comes to the fore in Kazakhstan. Of all the Central Asian republics, it boasts the highest internet penetration, more per capita wealth, and a somewhat more enlightened attitude toward the press, the latter perhaps rivaled only by Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, what’s happening in Kazakhstan could be a taste of the future for its neighbors.
A holiday for a profession in trouble—Yesterday, 24 June, journalists of independent newspapers, media organizations, and politicians from the Azat Party, held a silent demonstration in downtown Almaty. They covered their mouths with scarves as a symbolic demand for more freedom of speech. The demonstration went peacefully, but nearly a hundred police officers monitored it.
Azat filed an application for the rally twice, for 20 and 27 June, but both times the city administration turned them down on the pretext that “a rally would hinder normal functioning of public transportation”. Ironically, this is the first time in the history of Kazakhstan that the public has not been allowed to stage a rally in honor of the professional holiday, the Day of Journalism.
The draft law on the regulation of information and communication networks introduces internet censorship as well as bans critical coverage of political protests and inter-ethnic relations for all media. This law is just one of several attacks on independent media:
(1) A 30 million Tenge lawsuit has shut down the newspaper Tasjargan and a new criminal case has been brought against its founder Ermurat Bapi; (2) charges against the newspaper Vremya have already exceeded 1,150 billion Tenge; (3) the newspaper Svoboda Slova is currently facing three separate lawsuits; (4) a closed trial of the National Security Committee against R. Esergepov, chief editor of the newspaper Alma-Ata Info is underway; (5) the television channel ART has been shut down due to an SMS that was sent to the live broadcast by a viewer in Karaganda; (6) the independent internet-newspaper Zona.kz is still suffering denial-of-service attacks; and (7) the website of internet-newspaper Zhas Alash has been blocked.
An e-pocalypse? How would the Kaznet develop after the new law is adopted? Yesterday, MediaNet, the International Center of Journalism, has attempted to answer this question by speculating on the economic after-effects of the new law. The research was carried out by polling over 60 professional web-market players.
According to the majority of the respondents, primary costs of internet business in Kazakhstan will increase by over 10%, which would negatively affect competitiveness. Web projects may either loose their positions or disappear completely, bringing with them the demise of Web 2.0 resources and interactive projects with user-generated content such as forums, blogs and social networks.
Furthermore, MediaNet’s research also made clear that the draft law meets neither the demands of the local market nor international legal standards, much less the government’s own concept of a uniform information space. According to the project, 95% and 98% of polled internet service providers and website owners, respectively, had not been consulted during the law’s writing phase.
But despite all the problems facing journalism in the region, the profession has never been as organized than it is today. At the time of this book’s printing, the largest news story about news is the above-mentioned lawsuit in Tajikistan. Guess what? The journalists are winning!
The pen is mightier than the gavel—The three judges who launched a multimillion lawsuit against three leading independent newspapers in Tajikistan have offered the defendants peace talks to finish what they describe as “the unprecedented and widespread media campaign against the whole justice system in the county”.
To me as a long-time observer of the dispute, and probably also you, the reader, will feel that the judges are exaggerating the situation. There is no such campaign, just the one lawyer, Juraev, who is revealing more and more details of the decision-making process at the top level of the justice system—the Supreme Court of Tajikistan.
The troika made the offer in a letter published in Asia-Plus, one of the three newspapers. It was primarily an attack on Juraev, accusing him of blackmailing the judges and misleading the public. Of course, how can it be blackmail or deception when the letters are based on recordings of telephone conversations with one of the judges, Nurov, during which he confesses to corruption, extortion, and other gross malpractice?
Their letter, which by the way was delivered with a cover letter signed by the Supreme Court’s deputy chairman, B. Kholova, also noted the recent decision of an appeals court to revise the sentences of the infamous Isfara case. The court has reworded some of verdicts and reduced punishment of some the sentenced, for instance from ten to eight or from eight to five years in prison.
Juraev has praised the decision but feels that the court nevertheless came short by not admitting that the verdict was unlawful and many of the sentenced are innocent. As he sees it, the revision is essentially a face-saving attempt made on behalf of the Supreme Court. I’m strongly inclined to agree with Juraev. I doubt it will work anyway because the judges are trying to beat the newspapers with one of the oldest tools of the press, and they’re doing it badly.
Meanwhile, there was the court trial of the newspapers and Juraev, who again emerged as the hero. The Sino district court judge proceeded to bombard Juraev with objections, to which the lawyer protested by asking for the judge’s replacement. The court adjourned.
Seems the situation is changing in benefit of the journalists. Zafar Sufi, Editor-in-Chief of Ozodagon, one of three newspapers, hailed the negotiation offer from the judges. He said that it could lead to reconciliation. Tajikistan’s press saw this for it was: a maneuver by the judges to split the newspapers. In a joint press conference on Tuesday evening, all the three editors, Marat Mamadshoev of Asia Plus, Zafar Sufi of Ozodagon, and Khurshedi Atovullo of Farazh, announced that they reject Amriddin Safoev, the presiding judge of the case, if he will continue supporting the plaintiffs.
Additionally, Mamadshoev praised the role of Juraev, and threatened that if the status quo continues, he will publish a full transcript of the phone conversation between Nor Nurov and Ulughbek Mahmadshoev. Were that not enough, the head of the National Association of Independent Media, Nuriddin Qarshiboev, who was also present at the press conference, said that the justice system is attempting to pressure the media. He interpreted this as a sign of the system’s ultimately biased political motivations.
Nor has journalism had more new recruits than it does today. To conclude, even in the darkest media dungeons of Uzbekistan, young reporters persevere, as neweurasia’s Musafirbek, himself a young Uzbek journalist, reflects in this final post:
“Our youth should be much stronger, better educated, wiser and, of course, happier than us.” This is a frequent refrain from Uzbekistan’s president, one which, no doubt, he will say for long into the future. But his words ring hollow when we look deeper into the unhappy situation of Uzbek journalism’s next generation.
Obviously, those who work outside of official, sanctioned channels find themselves the target of harassment, extortion, defamation, or worse. There’s nothing surprising about this to anyone who’s been paying attention to Uzbekistan since independence.
However, those who work for official media find themselves in a different but equally difficult position. They are stuck between the independent journalists, in whose eyes they lose all credibility, and the elders of officialdom, who fear them.
To their superiors within the news agencies, young journalists are seen as non-professional simply because of their age. The bad treatment gets worse depending on the young journalist’s individual talent: the more capability they have, the more they are left to rot by their elder colleagues.
The reason is because the elder fears for his or her own job security. This means that young journalists are not able to gain the experience necessary to advance in their careers, and at the same time, if they do have the experience, they have the doors of opportunity shut in their face.
This raises an important question: with such problems, why do young journalists still try? The answer is that before entering the job market they already invested four years of their life to study journalism in university.
In school they could exercise their free will by choosing their own courses, not to mention drink in idealism. According to Uzbek law, students who completed their studies on scholarship must pay back the government for three years. Ironically, the best-paying jobs are with the official news agencies (which, like the students, are dependent upon the state for their survival).
You can easily imagine what happens after three years of thankless slaving away in this industry: most of the idealists are obliterated and either quit or sell out and become cogs in the machine.
But then why are so many of Uzbekistan’s youth enrolling in journalism majors? After all, you would think that word would eventually get around that the job market is terrible.
One answer is that they are shortsighted. They are used as cheap labor and don’t even realize it, foolishly believing that eventually they’ll catch a lucky break.
Another answer is that they simply care about their society. Call it delusion or the naivete of youth; either way, they believe in the power of information.