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CyberChaikhana’s media chapter: “When the Pen Runs Dry”

Written by on Thursday, 29 October 2009
CyberChaikhana, Media and Internet
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Image by Flickr user Jason Tavares (CC-usage).

Image by Flickr user Jason Tavares (CC-usage).

Here’s the latest chapter rough draft for the ongoing CyberChaikhana project.  It focuses on the status of media in general and journalism in particular in the region.  I think it actually came out rather well… ;)

(Warning: some of the formatting with the hyperlinks may get a little wacky…)

When the Pen Runs Dry

What book like ours would be complete without a chapter on traditional forms of media in Central Asia?  The situation for journalism in the region is grim.  Cover-ups, censorship, and intimidation of journalists are routine.  The white-washing of events is sometimes un-apologetically blatant, as American journalist Joshua Kucera noticed in Turkmenistan…

[need opening line] – 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:

[image]

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.

[Image]

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.

—Joshua Kucera, http://www.joshuakucera.net/2007/07/all-the-news-as.html

…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 country side. 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!’”

—Ivar Dale, http://www.neweurasia.net/politics-and-society/news-from-paradise/

It is thus perhaps appropriate that the news itself is correspondingly depressing, as the following post by Nafisa laments.

[[needs intro line]] 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 know.

Maybe in Europe this is just a style 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 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.  There are really few works done on really trying to understand the logic of the people here.

—Nafisa, http://bordersca.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/why-is-it-so-depressive-to-read-about-central-asia/

Among the constellation of institutions in modern society, the so-called “Fourth Estate” has a precarious place.  Sometimes leading public opinion, sometimes led by it, journalism’s relationship to audiences is complex – all the more so when market forces get involved.  Central Asia is a good petri dish to examine the reaction when business and reporting mix.

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 attention and boost ratings and, consequently, increase profits of a TV channel.  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.  I don’t know which of the decisions can be the right one.

Puletmetchizza, http://www.neweurasia.net/media-and-internet/ethicseconomics-dilemma-of-journalism/

When the press isn’t free (Yulduz Usmanova edition) — The mish-mish I heard most recently was that Yulduz Usmanova had been arrested.  She is perhaps the single most famous musician to come out of Central Asia among citizens of the former Soviet Union.  A child of the Soviet 60s, she sings in many languages – though I think mainly Tajik, Uzbek, and Russian, perhaps with a dash of Arabic.  She’s from Margilan, in the Ferghana Valley, home of Uzbek silk and ceramics, and is said to be an ethnic Tajik.  However, if you can spot a Tajik in a crowd of Uzbeks, you deserve a medal – or an Uzbek policeman’s uniform.

Speaking of which, Yulduz emigrated to Turkey back in 2008, citing difficulties with the government.  […]  Her official site has a note in Uzbek explaining the whole thing was a hoax, but I’ll get to that.  As for the arrest, my source had read on one of the sites out of Kyrgyzstan that she had been detained.  She’s been living and working in pseudo-voluntary exile since her falling out with the government, according to the grapevine.  However, she returned to Uzbekistan to sing at a wedding and was nicked by the rozzers, as they say in some island circles.  Most recently, she’s released a statement denying that she was detained. [But] you can see that no one really knows what is going on.

[…] 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.  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.

—Michael, http://www.registan.net/index.php/2009/01/18/when-press-isnt-free/

In light of the above post, the internet presents a unique opportunity for journalism to expand its reach.  Yet, as with journalism’s relationship to audiences, the dynamic between traditional media formats and new ones, particularly blogs, is at times antagonistic, at times symbiotic.  Consider this opinion by a Central Asian blogger:

Blogging is a bitch, and then you die — The early 21st Century has proved perhaps the most significant period of change for journalists.  […] As a result of rapid technological change, journalism as a profession has progressed. With the help of television, radio and the internet, people are able to get fresh news at one time from remote areas of the world. The cable viewers in Almaty today are able to see what happened in Washington, D.C., or Tokyo.


Journalism isn’t defined or devised by any specific rules. But there are different styles of journalism and different mediums. In my opinion, blogging cannot be legitimately called journalism, as it mostly consists from opinion articles but its importance is not necessarily whether it is journalism or not, but the effect it has on the profession and on public opinion.  For example, many international corporations monitor blogs to see what people are saying about them.

[…]  Many politicians are now having blogs themselves.  This is a great source to know their views on a whole host of issues. However, asking people’s opinion, 60 blogs for and 40 blogs against, does not mean that’s the public’s actual opinion [because] in many countries not everybody has access to the Internet.


“A friend of mine who works for the world economic summit was a subject of very serious blogging campaign,” said S4C journalist Tim Hartley. “After he had published his critical article on the Internet within an hour that story has gun through web-sites and blogs around the world. So he answered thousands of e-mails because people had blogged to each other complaining about what he had written.” So, the primary power of the blog is to complain.

—Ansel, https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=35044640&postID=116192851223123742

Yet, as the experience of neweurasia has shown, blogs have been a very important venue for providing useful analysis and criticism.  Bloggers have also demonstrated rapid-fire response times to breaking news and have been critical to generating awareness about problems.

Nevertheless, legitimate doubts remain.  In the next post Nathan of Registan.net wonders about their long-term viability, much less that of traditional formats who remain independent of regional governments:

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… There still are those like Forum 18, Ferghana.ru, RFE/RL, EurasiaNet, etc., but 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.

—Nathan, http://www.registan.net/index.php/2009/05/22/selective-repackaging/

Indeed, in the view of the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are, alongside Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam, “enemies of the internet”. neweurasia‘s Abdulgamid has spent the last few years critiquing the situation in Turkmenistan.

“While in Turkmenistan, access, and, most importantly, the speed of the Internet, seems to be frozen at 1995 levels, in the global virtual space our countrymen are not so little,” he writes in March 2008 (http://74.125.77.132/translate_c?hl=en&sl=ru&tl=en&u=http://www.neweurasia.net/ru/media-and-internet/%25D1%2582%25D1%2583%25D1%2580%25D0%25BA%25D0%25BC%25D0%25B5%25D0%25BD%25D1%2581%25D0%25BA%25D0%25B8%25D0%25B9-facebook-%25E2%2580%2593-%25D0%25BC%25D0%25B5%25D1%2580%25D1%2582%25D0%25B2%25D0%25B0%25D1%258F-%25D0%25B7%25D0%25BE%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B0/&prev=hp&rurl=translate.google.com&usg=ALkJrhiKJ4Se4EIws-MNFo6t4q6dmiJT_g).  Yet, a month later the government announced a new plan to expand wireless internet access to the public, beginning with kindergarten classes.

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.

—Abdulgamid, http://74.125.77.132/translate_c?hl=en&sl=ru&tl=en&u=http://www.neweurasia.net/ru/business-and-economics/%25D0%25BC%25D0%25B5%25D1%2582%25D0%25B0%25D0%25BC%25D0%25BE%25D1%2580%25D1%2584%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B7%25D1%258B-%25D0%25B8%25D0%25BD%25D1%2582%25D0%25B5%25D1%2580%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B5%25D1%2582%25D0%25B0-%25D0%25B2-%25D1%2582%25D1%2583%25D1%2580%25D0%25BA%25D0%25BC%25D0%25B5%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B8%25D1%2581%25D1%2582%25D0%25B0/&prev=hp&rurl=translate.google.com&usg=ALkJrhiOiTN4TLVXcv5xsnbhP-UXarwWsw

For once, it seems that the government of Turkmenistan is making good on a promise, albeit slowly.  There is evidence of an increase in internet activity in the Turkmen language, and in early 2009 the National Library opened an “internet center” and more bloggers are appearing in the Turkmen language after a long linguistic drought.

Meanwhile, neweurasia‘s Pravdin, who covers Uzbekistan, questions whether internet censorship there is overrated:

More than a cat playing piano — 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 distant perspective of 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 the Internet censorship in the country that is slowly embracing the development of new technologies.

Online censorship in the country affects only a small number of users. Let’s face it, Internet in Uzbekistan is still pretty much an attribute of a “lavish” lifestyle of local elites and expatriates. Even with the growing number of Internet cafés (mainly in the capital Tashkent) with affordable prices, only small amount of population can still be considered “wired.” Uzbek official statistics proudly claims that there are more than 2 million Internet users in the country. Two million may seem like a big – and surely exaggerated – number but in a country with 27 million people it is only 7 percent of the total population. Compare it with 25 percent of users in China, 34 in Iran and 27 in Russia and you will see that 7 percent is hardy a significant number to make any difference within a country.

A dial-up still costs a fortune (around $60 a month for unlimited access) in the country with an average salary of $200 a month. A “high-speed” access (much slower than in most of the countries) could cost more than $200 a month, which is extremely expensive even by the Western standards. In other words, one has to be pretty well-off to enjoy unlimited Internet access in the middle of Central Asia.

Like in many countries, an average Uzbek Internet user spends his/her time sending numerous e-mails, chatting with friends, uploading family photos to Odnoklassniki.ru and Vkontakte.ru (most popular social networks in many former Soviet republics) and playing online games. The majority of those users will never attempt to engage in digital activism even if given an opportunity to do so.

In his “Cute Cat Theory of Web Activism,”  Ethan Zuckerman claims that the Web mainly serves as an entertainment platform where people exchange cute photographs of their cats and watch videos of funny pets. Indeed, the most popular videos on Youtube, for example, are the ones with Avril Lavigne and a dancing guy. Those pieces of entertainment are far from politics and current issues deciding the faith of the world. Zuckerman says that only when a government blocks popular online entertainment services, do regular Internet users start to realize how oppressive their government is. Fore better or for worse, it did not happen in Uzbekistan yet. The regime briefly went overboard in February 2009 when it blocked an access to Lovejournal.com, a  popular blogging platform in the country. But the government quickly backed down after a couple of days.

Internet censorship in Uzbekistan is very easy to circumvent. It becomes more and more difficult to contain information in the era of rapidly developing Internet technologies. 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 an 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 and NGO in Uzbekistan certainly have more Internet freedoms than a regular citizen. Although politically sensitive Web site are also blocked in those organizations, the employees are knowledgeable enough to bypass the restrictions within the matter of seconds.

What really puts the country lagging behind many countries on information superhighway is not the almighty Internet censorship but a simple (and very often ignored) fact that the Internet access is still a luxury that many people cannot afford. Increasing the amount of people with wired laptops may not automatically lead to increased political activism but it will certainly provide an opportunity to make people interested in something more than just a cat playing piano.

Pravdin, http://www.neweurasia.net/media-and-internet/uzbekistan-internet-censorship-is-overrated/

Yet, while green shoots are appearing in these unlikely places, the internet is under attack elsewhere in the region.  LiveJournal has been banned in three countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.  WordPress platforms have also been banned in four of the countries and new internet regulations that expand liability for slander are emerging in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

[need lead-in] Yesterday, June 24, 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.

The draft law on regulation of information and communication networks introduces censorship in the Internet and a ban on critical coverage of political protests and inter-ethnic relations for all media:

  • A 30 million tenge lawsuit has shutdown the newspaper Tasjargan and a new criminal case has been brought against its founder Ermurat Bapi.
  • Charges against the newspaper Vremya have already exceeded 1,150 billion tenge.
  • The newspaper Svoboda slova newspaper is currently facing three separate lawsuits.
  • A closed trial of the National Security Committee against R. Esergepov, chief editor of the newspaper Alma-Ata Info is underway.
  • The television channel ART has been shut down due to an SMS that was sent to the live broadcast by a viewer in Karaganda.
  • The independent internet-newspaper Zona.kz is still suffering denial-of-service attacks.
  • The website of internet-newspaper Zhas Alash has been blocked.

Azat filed an application for the rally twice, for June 20 and 27, but both times the city administration turned them down on the pretext that “a rally would hinder normal functioning of public transportation”.  Thus, for the first time in history of Kazakhstan, the public is not allowed to stage a rally in honor of the professional holiday, the Day of Journalism.

—Arman, http://www.neweurasia.net/media-and-internet/media-protest/

[need lead-in] How would Kaznet develop after the notorious amendments to the Law on internet are adopted? Yesterday there was the attempt to answer this question taken in MediaNet, the International center of Journalism, where the research on the economic after-effects of the mentioned amendments was carried out by polling over 60 professional web-market players.

According to the majority of the respondents, the prime cost of the internet business in Kazakhstan will increase by over 10%, which would negatively affect its competitiveness. At that, the group of high risk web-projects that can either loose their positions or disappear at all includes Web 2.0 resources, interactive projects with user-generated content (such as: forum, blogs and social networks).

It also became clear that 95% of the internet providers and 98% of website owners, which took part in the poll, had not been asked for the opinion when the amendments to the law were prepared. According to MediaNet the draft of the law meets neither the demands of the local market, nor the international legal standards, and, moreover, it even contradicts the state concept of a uniform information space.

The Publicist, http://www.neweurasia.net/media-and-internet/kaznet-under-fire/

But despite all the problems facing journalism in the region, the profession has never had more new recruits than it does today.  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 nonprofessional 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. They 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 rasies an important question: with such problems, why do young journalists still try? The answer is that before enterring 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 obliterate 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 short-sighted. 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.

—Musafirbek, http://www.neweurasia.net/media-and-internet/our-youth-must-be-happier-than-us-the-unreality-of-journalism-part-2/

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