Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Freedom of News and Information

On the eve of the European Union-Central Asia security summit which the French government, the current holder of the EU rotating presidency, is hosting tomorrow in Paris, Reporters Without Borders draws attention to the lack of press freedom in Central Asia, especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

“Despite the international community’s initiatives and despite leadership changes, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to lag far behind Europe and the rest of the world in respect for freedom of news and information,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“A high price is paid in these countries for any attempts at independent or critical reporting,” the press freedom organization continued. “Arrests, violence and harassment of journalists and their families are the methods habitually used by the authorities whenever they are criticized.

“Europe must not discuss efforts to combat terrorism or drug trafficking with these countries without also raising the human rights situation. Otherwise it would mean abandoning all those who have been struggling, often for many years, for an improvement in human rights. We have a duty to defend them.”

Two years have gone by since Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Turkmenistan correspondent, journalist and human rights activist Ogulsapar Muradova, 58, died from the blows she received in prison while serving a six-year sentence for helping a French TV journalist to prepare a report. There has been no proper investigation into her death despite the international community’s many appeals.

Two other activists - Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiyev - were arrested at the same time as Muradova and, like her, were sentenced to six or seven years in prison at the end of a trial held behind closed doors without any defense lawyers. There has been no news of either of them since the trial.

President Saparmurad Niyazov’s death in December 2006 and replacement by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov did not usher in the hoped-for liberalization. There are even reasons for thinking that control of news and information has been reinforced, despite the opening of a few Internet cafés.

An RFE correspondent was arrested and tortured on 20 June, at the very moment that the EU and Turkmenistan were holding talks on human rights in Ashgabat. The journalist was finally released after an intense international campaign on his behalf. But the journalists still active in Turkmenistan say they are being harassed more than ever.

The situation is hardly any better in Uzbekistan, where the few remaining independent journalists are constantly hounded. A few political prisoners have been released this year, but journalists and government opponents continue to be harassed. Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a correspondent of the news website Uznews.net and author of many articles on the environment, human rights and corruption, is being held in the western city of Nukus.

Arrested on 7 June, on the eve of an international conference in Tashkent, Abdurakhmanov was initially accused of using and trafficking in drugs. When they authorities realized they could not pass Abdurakhmanov off as a drug consumer, the charges were changed to “trafficking of a large quantity of drugs” under article 25-273 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Abdurakhmanov continues to insist on his innocence and says he knew nothing about the 114 grams of marijuana and 5.8 grams of opium which the police claim to have found in his car. Prosecutors presented the charges against him when his trial opened on 12 September but the police officers who supposedly found the drugs were not in court. The trial is due to continue tomorrow.

Although the situation in the three other Central Asian countries is far from ideal, they have nothing like the same level of media control and violence against journalists. Kazakhstan ranked 125th out of 169 countries in the 2007 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, Kyrgyzstan ranked 110th and Tajikistan ranked 115th. Both Uzbekistan (160th) and Turkmenistan (167th) were in the last 10.

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