Crossroads Asia

A Bleak Outlook: Press Freedom in Central Asia

Central Asia is but a barometer for the current state of global press freedoms.

A Bleak Outlook: Press Freedom in Central Asia
Credit: Public domain

When it came to press freedoms, the first quarter-century of post-Soviet independence in Central Asia was, by certain metrics, even worse than the USSR’s waning days. Journalists harassed, kidnapped, and murdered. State capture of both television and print outlets. Laws passed that effectively silenced opposition members and non-state press alike, allowing regimes in Astana, Dushanbe, Tashkent, and Ashgabat to survive.

But if the latest round of numbers from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is any indication, the next quarter-century of an independent Central Asia is off to an even gloomier start than the region saw in 1991.

With the release of RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Index, observers can not only check in on the region’s progress – or lack thereof – but we can further compare regional crackdowns to more notable repression elsewhere.

The picture, unsurprisingly, is bleak. To wit, there is only one country that cracks the top half of the global rankings – and then, only barely. Kyrgyzstan, coming in at 89th internationally, saw the biggest drop of any Central Asian state from last year’s rankings, sliding four slots and forcing RSF to wonder whether the country was facing a “turning point” in regards to a potential press clampdown. The drop-off isn’t necessarily unexpected; to get a taste of how Bishkek’s views on a free media have relapsed, just look at the recent threats President Almazbek Atambayev unloaded about critical media, pledging to take his concerns all the way to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kazakhstan, interestingly, saw a slight improvement from its 2016 ranking, jumping three spots to 157th globally. But even that was a dubious distinction. As RSF wrote, “Kazakhstan’s modest rise in the 2017 Index is due solely to the deterioration in many other countries. Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and ‘Leader of the Nation’ Nursultan Nazarbayev’s advancing age are accentuating his paranoia and desire for control.” Nazarbayev has certainly been no friend to a free press during his 26-year tenure as president, and last year, unfortunately, only saw more of the same.

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Meanwhile, Uzbekistan (169) and Turkmenistan (178) remain ensconced among the foremost anti-free press governments of the world, joining the likes of China, North Korea, and Laos. Turkmenistan has continued its campaign against non-state media unabated – targeting most especially those from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – while Uzbekistan, despite the recent ascension of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, shows little signs of shedding the predatory practices perfected under former President Islam Karimov. Writes RSF, “The dean of Uzbekistan’s imprisoned journalists, Muhammad Bekjanov, was finally released in February 2017, but nine others continue to rot in prison in the most abominable conditions.”

And then there’s Tajikistan. Hanging near Russia (148), Tajikistan has, interestingly, improved from its 2016 bottom-out, coming in now at 149th in the world. However, that’s still a remarkable 33 slots lower than Tajikistan’s 2015 placement. The semblance of an independent press Tajikistan once boasted has been, under President Emomali Rahmon, snuffed. “Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation, and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists,” RSF writes, pointing out that Rahmon’s “authoritarian tendencies threaten the fragile national consensus” following the close of Tajikistan’s civil war.

To be sure, Central Asia is but a barometer for the current state of global press freedoms, especially in the Asia-Pacific – even Canada (22) has dropped 14 spots over the past two years. The members of the vibrant press promised in Central Asia’s first years of independence have been targeted, exiled, or eradicated altogether. And the remaining regimes, looking at how little stock actors in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington place in press freedoms, are only too happy to continue undercutting an independent press wherever, and however, they can.