Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Have Press Freedoms Improved in Central Asia?

What does a new global press freedom index really say about Central Asia?

Colleen Wood
Have Press Freedoms Improved in Central Asia?
Credit: Pixabay

On April 21, Reporters Without Borders – the world’s largest non-governmental organization working to defend media freedom – released its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Since 2002, Reporters Without Borders has published the World Press Freedom Index annually. The rankings cover 180 countries, with scores based on experts’ responses to an 87-question survey about the media environment. This includes questions about the freedom to express different opinions, the extent to which media is independent from the state, and whether journalists feel pressured to self-censor. Scores range from 0 to 100, with higher scores signifying a worse environment for press freedom.

Central Asian states rose slightly in the rankings: Turkmenistan pulled out of the bottom position and is now ranked 179th in the world; Tajikistan held steady at 160th, while Uzbekistan climbed four spots since 2019 to overtake Kazakhstan – which also rose up one place – and the two are ranked 156th and 157th, respectively. Kyrgyzstan stands out in the region, having climbed slightly to rank 82nd in the world.

Given that these countries remain clustered toward the very bottom of the list and governments have continued to restrict the flow of information, what then should we make of these states’ incremental climb in the index?  

Changes in the ordinal rankings are easy to read, but they present somewhat of a puzzle for those who are familiar with the region and the way authorities treat the media. For example, why did Turkmenistan climb a spot, when the state’s grip on information remains so strong and conditions for journalists remain so dire? Is Uzbekistan’s jump in the rankings really deserved, or is it another example of praise for efforts at reform regardless of policy outcomes?

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These questions matter for global governance, as scholars have come to see rankings as a fixture of governments’ and international organizations’ administrative practices. Rankings have material consequences – for example, states that are marked down by credit agencies must pay higher rates on bonds – and can serve as fodder for authoritarian statecraft narratives. Depending on the nature of the ranking (and the ordinal position), leaders can point to annual reports as evidence of reform or attack the credibility of watchdog organizations that point out offenses.

In this way, the concern that Reporters Without Borders’ newest report could inadvertently contribute to autocratic control of the media makes sense. However, focusing solely on the ordinal position of Central Asian countries offers a misleading picture of Reporters Without Borders’ take on press freedom dynamics in the region.

Maintaining a narrow regional lens when working with a global dataset like the World Press Freedom Index can lead to analytical hiccups. Although Central Asian countries generally ranked better in 2020 than 2019, it is not because domestic press freedom conditions improved; rather, the jump in rankings is because the rest of the world has generally fallen. Turkmenistan’s position rose not because of any real progress, but because North Korea’s score worsened enough to beat Turkmenistan for the bottom spot.

This suggests the importance of focusing on the cardinal scores assigned to each country. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all experienced worse scores in 2020 than 2019; the qualitative descriptions of press freedom in each country describe a range of classic and innovative tactics to silence dissent and control the flow of information.

Uzbekistan is the only country in the region to have its score improve, though only by 0.5 (which, on a scale of 100, is quite negligible and reflects the hollowness of many recent reforms). Despite the slight uptick in score, Reporters Without Borders remained critical of the press situation in Uzbekistan, saying “The road is still long.”

The World Press Freedom Index’s release at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic offers an critical reminder about the importance of transparency and accountability. Despite fairly swift and effective responses given material and bureaucratic limitations, the effect of weak media environments across Central Asia means local and international observers alike are struggling to get an accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground. While Reporters Without Borders frames its work as democracy promotion, broadly, the COVID-19 crisis shows that free media is also a public health issue.