Testimony of Frank Smyth
Washington, 18 July 2001
Testimony on July 18, 2001, for the joint hearing of the House Subcommittees on International Operations and Human Rights (IOHR) and Middle East and South Asia (MESA) on ‘Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of Dissidents.’
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting the Committee to Protest Journalists to testify at today’s hearing. I am Frank Smyth, the Washington representative of the CPJ, and I am presenting a report written by my colleague Emma Gray, CPJ’s program consultant for Europe and Central Asia who is unable to be here in person. I will be happy to take questions, but regret that since I am not a specialist in the region, I may have to refer queries to Ms. Gray who will be pleased to answer them in written form.
In the past two weeks two incidents have occurred that highlight the urgent need to monitor press freedom and human rights in Central Asia. They serve as chilling reminders of the fate of those brave journalists and other members of civil society who dare to criticize their government publicly.
The death-in-detention of former Uzbek parliamentarian Shovriq Rusimorodov, an activist with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, is a tragic addition to the long list of Uzbek government opponents who have died for their views. Rusimorodov had most recently annoyed the authorities by speaking out on behalf of fellow citizens who had been convicted of collaboration with armed insurgents, and others who had been forcibly displaced from their villages. He was arrested on June 15, and held incommunicado for three weeks. Uzbek officials barred access to a lawyer or to family members. His body was delivered to his family on July 7, and his colleagues believe he was tortured to death.
On July 5, Russian authorities in Moscow arrested Dododjon Atovullo, the exiled publisher and editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz ("Daylight"). Atovullo was an outspoken critic of the Tajik government. He was arrested by Russian authorities at the request of the Tajik government, which sought his extradition. His newspaper has frequently accused government officials of corruption, nepotism, and drug trafficking. Atovullo faces charges of sedition and insulting the president, and his lawyer said he would face the death penalty if extradited to Tajikistan. The Russian authorities denied the extradition request. On July 11, Atovullo returned to Germany where he now lives.
The fate of these two courageous individuals demonstrates an inescapable fact of life for the citizens of Central Asia: that speaking out is dangerous. Journalism is a hazardous profession in many of the countries that CPJ monitors, and the republics of Central Asia are no exception. Since it is a region where the United States has interests and influence, we welcome this opportunity to discuss ways of improving the press freedom climate in the region.
I shall outline press freedom conditions and CPJ’s work in each country, then discuss common problems faced by the media throughout the region, and finally offer some suggestions on ways in which the IOHR and MESA subcommittees could act to ease the plight of journalists in Central Asia.
The most striking feature of the media landscape in Kazakhstan is the tight control exerted by the family and business associates of President Nursultan Nazarbayev over the country’s most influential newspapers and broadcast outlets. What the regime does not own outright, it aims to stifle through the harassment and persecution of journalists.
Often this intimidation is conducted through the courts. Libel is a criminal offense in Kazakhstan, despite a growing international consensus that no one should ever be jailed for what they say or write. Earlier this year, CPJ wrote to President Nazarbayev to protest the one-year jail sentence handed to Yermurat Bapi, editor of the newspaper Soldat, who was convicted of "publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the president." Though the editor was pardoned, he remains a convicted criminal who is banned from traveling abroad.
Media outlets that cover taboo subjects experience official harassment, including the confiscation of print runs and tax raids on editorial offices. State-owned printing houses often refuse to print newspapers that touch on hot-button issues such as high-level corruption. Meanwhile, the law against publishing state secrets criminalizes unauthorized disclosure of such information as the private life and health of the president and his family.
Journalists who work for news outlets financed by the political opposition are targets of intimidation. Government officials and associates of the president often file defamation suits against such news outlets, which regularly face crippling fines imposed by pliant judges.
To highlight the regime’s harassment of opposition and independent journalists, CPJ placed Nazarbayev on its annual list of the "Ten Worst Enemies of the Press" last year. In 2001, the country’s press freedom record remains abysmal.
Kyrgyzstan’s reputation for allowing more press freedom than any other Central Asian country was sullied by a severe government clampdown on independent media in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections last year. The country’s poor economic conditions are also a major factor hampering media pluralism. As a rule, attacks on journalists take the form of legal pressure rather than imprisonment or beatings, but the recent crackdown shows no sign of easing.
Libel remains a criminal offence though earlier this year hopes were raised that Parliament will repeal the relevant statutes. The U.S. media development organization Internews has been active in persuading government officials to consider such a move.
Most libel cases are tried in fact in civil courts, and suits filed against newspapers often result in huge fines. In April, the opposition daily Asaba was declared bankrupt after losing a battle over repayment of loans and its inability to pay an unprecedented US$100,000 damage award to a parliamentary deputy who alleged that the paper had libelled him repeatedly over many years. In the past, Asaba had frequently been harassed by Kyrgyz tax authorities, and its newsprint stocks were often confiscated. The opposition weekly Res Publica and the independent daily Delo Nomer have also faced concerted legal harassment including several libel suits, some of which resulted in heavy fines.
Complicated media registration laws have impeded the activities of the independent press. On June 20 the Justice Ministry cancelled the registration of 16 Kyrgyz media outlets, including two owned by outspoken government critics. The two editors – Aleksandr Kim and Melis Eshimkanov – claim the cancellation may be politically motivated, rather than a bureaucratic mistake as the registering body claimed. In one recent victory however, Osh TV, one of the first independent stations in Central Asia, won a long-standing court battle with the government that allowed it to retain a popular broadcasting frequency.
President Islam Karimov’s increasingly oppressive regime has carried out a wholesale attack on human rights, including those of journalists. The situation has worsened in recent years, as Karimov has used the threat of Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism as a pretext for jailing thousands of Moslem believers and cracking down on civil and political rights. In carrying out their profession journalists are forced to walk an ever more hazardous minefield created by newly-adopted anti-terrorism laws.
Torture of political detainees is commonplace. CPJ has documented at least three cases of journalists being held under appalling conditions in notorious penal colonies. At least two of the journalists were tortured. The third is in extremely poor health; we fear for his life if his incarceration continues.
CPJ is investigating two more cases—Shonazar Yermatov and Majid Abduraimov—in which reporters face long prison sentences for bribery and extortion or for possession of narcotics. In spite of the courts’ rulings, we believe that both men were in fact charged because of their writing. Uzbek police commonly plant narcotics or bundles of money as an effective means of silencing critical voices, according to local human rights sources.
Government domination of the media, including the Internet, is all but absolute. Close allies of the president or other government officials own the main media companies. The government has a monopoly on printing presses and newspaper distribution, and it finances the main newspapers.
Uzbekistan is one of the few countries in the world that routinely practices prior censorship. The State Press Committee reviews articles before publication, and can order any material to be withdrawn. It is not unusual for newspaper editors to receive phone calls from officials demanding revisions. The current edition of Dangerous Assignments, CPJ’s biannual magazine devoted to news and analysis about the global struggle for press freedom, includes a vividly detailed report of the local censorship regime written by an anonymous Uzbek journalist. (The article is included as an annex to this testimony.)
Tajikistan is still reeling from the devastation of the five-year civil war, which ended in 1997. In dire conditions of instability and poverty, reporting remains a dangerous profession, especially for the few journalists who dare to investigate power struggles in the political and military elite or trafficking in weapons and drugs by organized criminal gangs. According to Tajik sources, local law enforcement agencies are responsible for much of the harassment, beatings, and threats that journalists endure.
The state controls the single publishing house in Tajikistan, and the authorities intervene when they do not wish an article or newspaper to see the light of day. Applications for broadcasting licenses can take years to be processed.
The Tajik Penal Code stipulates that "the distribution of clearly false information defaming a person's honor, dignity, or reputation" is punishable by up to two years in jail. Insulting or defaming the president carries a maximum of five years imprisonment. Most attacks take the form of violent beatings, reportedly at the hands of the police or security forces.
In this bleak picture, one relatively bright spot is the northern Tajikistan province of Sugd, near the Uzbek border. Sugd emerged relatively unscathed from the civil war, and independent journalism seems to be thriving there today. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting recently reported 10 independent TV stations and 17 privately-owned newspapers in the region, all of which operated without undue pressure from local authorities. The new ventures are supported by international organizations such as the OSCE, the Eurasia Foundation, USAID and Internews. One cannot overemphasize the vital role that such organizations play in funding, training and technical support for local journalism.
It is not possible to speak of a free press in Turkmenistan, where the local government takes isolationism to absurd extremes. On April 5, for example, President Saparmurat Niyazov summarily banned opera and ballet in his country, claiming both were "alien" to Turkmen culture.
The state controls all publishing and broadcast licenses, and last year took steps to regulate the Internet as well. In May 2000, the Ministry of Communications rescinded the licenses of the country’s five private Internet Service Providers (ISPs), giving Turkmentelecom and other state communication entities an information monopoly. Given Turkemistan’s dismal economic record, few journalists were in a position to take advantage of the Internet in any case, but the ruling exacerbated their isolation.
Aside from the state news agency, Turkmenistan has ten Turkmen language publications and one Russian publication (a few Russian newspapers also circulate in the country). All foreign visitors must submit to strict surveillance by the Council for the Supervision of Foreigners, further restricting outside influence over the country.
As well as institutionalized controls over the media, President Niyazov’s cult of personality is omnipresent and overwhelming. The newspapers and airwaves are filled with tributes to Niyazov’s "glorious" words and deeds.
Few dare to speak out against a regime that routinely jails and tortures political and religious dissidents. The few journalists that do write for foreign publications use pseudonyms.
The region as a whole suffers from poverty, political instability and rampant corruption. Lack of political and civil rights is a pattern throughout Central Asia—aspects of state pressure against the media include:
- overwhelming state ownership of media
state monopolies on printing facilities and distribution networks
lack of official accountability
lack of transparency of government funding
absence of judicial impartiality
markedly increased pressure prior to elections
insult laws that carry criminal penalties
punitive tax inspections
misuse of libel laws leading to the imposition of crippling fines
- beatings and torture of political opponents in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
Repression and violence, or the threat of it, is ever-present for many reporters, encouraging self-censorship as a survival mechanism. Investigative reporting is rare. As a rule, journalists avoid sensitive topics, and at most will reprint international media articles about taboo issues (although attributing a story to an outside source does not necessarily shield editors from prosecution.
The lack of official transparency and accountability means that journalists have a hard time corroborating facts. As a result, the regional press is often dominated by anecdotes and second-hand information. Stories of huge national importance and concern, such as HIV/AIDS, drug trafficking, military manoeuvres, and official corruption, are covered rarely and often inadequately. As a result there is little public trust in the press.
The citizens of Central Asia are denied access to information. Absence of public debate about issues allows repressive regimes to stay in power. But if democratic reforms are to take place, ordinary people must have the opportunity to learn about issues of real concern to them, in order to debate them and press their leaders for change.
Recommendations to the Subcommittees
The conflict in Afghanistan and concerns about international terrorism and the narcotics and weapons trade make Central Asia of growing strategic importance to U.S. security interests. Energy issues, particularly with regard to Kazakhstan, are also high on the U.S. economic agenda.
These factors mean an increasing need for engagement. It is in the interests of the U.S. as well as the people of Central Asia to back policies that encourage respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, greater accountability of police and security services, the decriminalization of defamation laws, adopting a Freedom of Information law, and greater transparency in the ownership, management and funding of state-run media outlets, printing facilities, and distribution networks.
CPJ would like U.S. officials and lawmakers to make strong public and private statements that make clear the U.S. commitment to press freedom as a cornerstone of democracy. We would like those words to be backed up by action linking any cooperation or non-humanitarian aid to concrete improvements in freedom of expression. We would also call on you to support international organizations that support independent media in the region, such as the OSCE, the Eurasia Foundation, USAID, Internews, the Soros Foundation, and others.
The pressure on journalists is part of Central Asia’s shocking human rights record. It is both our duty and in our interests to act to support those men and women who care enough about their fellow citizens and are courageous enough to risk their liberty, and sometimes their lives, to speak the truth.
NEWS FROM THE COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS
For more information: Alex Lupis, (212) 465-101, ext. 112, [email protected].
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
The following article appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Dangerous Assignments, CPJ ’s biannual magazine devoted to press freedom issues worldwide.
The Sound of Silence
Uzbekistan has one of the most strict censorship regimes in the world, as the author learned when she launched her journalism career in Tashkent.
By Adele Lotus
Tashkent—My career began with a failure. Just a few hours before my first documentary was due to air on state television, an Uzbek government censor was deconstructing my portrait of the national healthcare system.
The year was 1997, and our conversation was not going well. The bureaucrat was unhappy that I had pointed out flaws in the health system, but what really drove him mad was my attempt to tell Uzbek viewers how such problems were dealt with in the United States. "Why are you propagandizing America?" he screamed, spraying me with his spit. "Are the Americans behind this?"
Then he offered to cut me a deal. "We can compromise," he said. "I understand that you are a young journalist and this is your first job. Your friends and family must be sitting in front of their television sets waiting for your debut. But there will be no debut. What a pity! So here is what we’ll do."
He outlined his plan. I was to sit down and write a detailed explanatory note "naming all those who stood to benefit from the distribution of such films in Uzbekistan, and explaining why." Meanwhile, he would cut out certain parts of the film, change others, and broadcast it in this new form.
"Well, let’s shake on it," he concluded brightly. But we did not shake hands, because I refused to change my program. The state channel aired a cartoon in its place.
How it works
Uzbek censors often compare themselves to traffic lights. In this metaphor, journalists are drivers, and readers and viewers are pedestrians. The censors believe that their job is to prevent catastrophes between drivers and pedestrians.
Most Tashkent newspapers are published from the same high-rise building on Matbuotchilar Street. The third floor of this building houses the "traffic lights."
Every newspaper must submit an advance proof of every edition to the censor, who reads each headline and article, including the obituaries and the weather forecast. The censor uses red ink to cross out photographs, phrases, and even whole articles that are not to his liking.
Editors are required to fill the white spaces left by the censor with empty phrases and worthless items, so that the outward appearance of the newspaper does not suffer and traces of censorship are not evident to the reader.
I know of only one case in the history of Uzbek journalism where an editorial staff refused to carry out this degrading procedure. On April 6, 2000, the newspaper Samarkand, published in the city of the same name, ran an attack on censorship that contained numerous blank spaces where the censor had removed undesirable words and phrases.
The story was entitled "Who has Greater Love for His or Her Fatherland?" The author contrasted people hired to conceal society’s flaws (censors), with people driven by their professional honor to tell the truth (journalists). There was a lot of white space in that piece after the censor got through with it.
As a rule, the censor is authorized to make independent decisions. However, he will sometimes ask a higher authority to rule on a doubtful item. Only when the censor is satisfied with the contents of the newspaper does he sign the proof. The newspaper cannot be printed without his signature.
Not all censors are the same, of course. A censor’s severity will vary with his intellect, level of education, and degree of political conservatism, not to mention his mood, literary taste, and personal feelings about a particular writer or editor. The work is exhausting and poorly paid, so it’s not surprising that censors are rarely drawn from the best and brightest classes of society.
Letters of the law
During Soviet times, censorship was the responsibility of GLAVLIT, the Main Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press. GLAVLIT distributed lists of proscribed information to editors and publishers in each Soviet republic, and meticulously reviewed all publications to ensure that its instructions were followed. After Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, the local branch of GLAVLIT was renamed the National Committee for Protection of State Secrets in the Press (UZLIT).
The same bureaucrats remained on staff, and UZLIT to this day is the main censor of print media in Uzbekistan, just as GLAVLIT was under the Soviet Union.
Despite this bureaucratic continuity, however, Uzbek law is conflicted on the issue of censorship. Chapter 15, Article 67 of the Constitution states that "censorship of mass media is not permitted" in the Republic of Uzbekistan, and that "nobody has the right to demand preliminary coordination of published reports or materials, as well as content changes or their full removal from print or broadcast."
Yet according to Chapter 7, Article 29 of the same Constitution, expressions of opinion can be restricted to ensure the protection of state secrets or "other secrets." The word "secret" is not defined, which in practice allows the censors to proscribe virtually anything in a newspaper (see sidebar).
Censoring the past…
Ever since independence, our censors have been trying to erase the Soviet past from the consciousness of the Uzbek people. In order to wipe out the memory of Russian colonial domination, they comb through draft newspaper articles searching for direct and indirect references to the Soviet Union. The censors are allergic to words such as "Communist," "pioneer," "revolution," and "perestroika," as well as the names of old Soviet leaders and pictures of people wearing Soviet regalia. Whenever they find such words and images, they cross them out.
Even in crossword puzzles, it is forbidden to mention Russian names and cultural traditions. For example, a Tashkent newspaper recently tried to run articles about the Russian actor Vladimir Vysotskiy and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The censor spiked both stories, using the same rationale in each case: "It is necessary to write more about the representatives of Uzbek culture."
…And the present
Domestic censorship is also an instrument of foreign policy. International news sections contain no information about Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, with which Uzbekistan has uneasy relations. Also, the names of these states cannot be printed. If an editor submits the phrase "as reported by the Russian [or Kazakh, or Turkmen] press," the censor will invariably substitute "as reported by the foreign press."
Despite their aversion to the Soviet Union, the censors have also worked to replace the geographical term "Central Asia" with the old Soviet term "Middle Asia" in Uzbek media usage. Why? Because "Middle Asia" excludes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s chief regional rival.
Closer to home, the censors do their best to root out even the most glancing reference to ideologies contrary to that of the state. No information can be published about banned political parties and unregistered human rights organizations. And because of Uzbek government concerns about the advent of political Islam in Central (sorry, Middle) Asia, for example, censors routinely bar photographs of men with beards or "Middle Eastern" facial features. From the censors’ point of view, beards are prima facie evidence of Islamic fundamentalist beliefs. A "Middle Eastern" appearance, meanwhile, reminds them of regimes that are eager, they fear, to export fundamentalism to Uzbekistan.
One happy family
At the same time, Uzbek censors wish to promote a positive image of Uzbekistan in the eyes of its own citizens, as well as the global community. To this end, Uzbek media manufacture myths of stability and prosperity, just as the Soviet press did in the past. For this reason, Uzbek journalists are not allowed to mention the existence of corruption, unemployment, poverty, prostitution, the black economy, or the exploitation of child labor by cotton farmers.
When a Tashkent newspaper wrote about a government campaign to help the elderly, the censorship crossed out negative adjectives such as "decrepit," "sick," and "feeble." When the same newspaper ran an article noting an unusually large number of sick children due to the cold winter that year, the censor ruled that it was never cold in Uzbekistan and that all Uzbek children were healthy. Needless to say, the published version of this article bore little resemblance to the original draft.
Another newspaper submitted an investigative article about a murder connected to the illicit sale of human organs to be used in transplants. The censor rejected the story on the grounds that "this newspaper is read by foreign diplomats, who might form the impression that such crimes are common in Uzbekistan. Then the state’s image will suffer."
However, the editor of the newspaper insisted on running the story. After lengthy negotiations with his superiors, the censor allowed a significantly abridged version of the article to appear. In the published story, all details describing the nature of the crime were omitted, along with words such as "blood," "dismembered body," and "murder." The censor’s final verdict was that "the public must not be traumatized!"
A journalist whose work is regularly abridged or rejected is forced to become careful about his choice of topics and the manner in which he treats them. According to a recent opinion poll, meanwhile, 54 percent of Uzbek journalists believe that censorship is necessary to prevent the dissemination of state secrets, maintain public order, and promote an attractive image of the state.
Journalists who are not willing to sacrifice their professionalism leave state-owned media to work for foreign news agencies. However, this does not end their troubles. The state security services monitor whatever Uzbek journalists publish in the foreign press. The authorities have been known to harass Uzbek journalists whose international work was considered damaging to the state’s reputation.
A colleague of mine who works for the Uzbek Service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty network once aired a report about poverty and homelessness in Samarkand. She was promptly summoned to meet with municipal authorities, who told her that poor and homeless people existed in every country, not only in Uzbekistan, and insisted that she not call attention to this problem.
The government does not hesitate to blacklist journalists who break either written or unwritten rules. A colleague of mine once made the mistake of asking a difficult question at a cabinet minister’s press conference. The minister could not answer the question, but he could and did make life difficult for my colleague. Today, he is unable to find work at any Uzbek news organization, even when positions are available.
My brave but unemployed colleague is an exception. Most Uzbek journalists are all too willing to censor themselves in order to keep their jobs. As a result, journalists here can hardly be described as the fourth estate of Uzbek society. Most of the time, it would be more accurate to describe them as the public relations arm of an authoritarian regime. By writing what the government wants them to write, they are helping to project the illusion of democratic reform in Uzbekistan.
In July 2000, for example, the head of the state news service held a press conference for accredited foreign and domestic journalists. He announced that his goal was to promote "objectivity" in reporting on Uzbekistan. According to him, "objectivity" meant that journalists had a duty to publish positive news about the country.
One of our leading newspapers covered the press conference as follows: "It was noted that it would be convenient if journalists who work in the foreign-owned media would cooperate closely with the appropriate government departments when obtaining information, specifically with the press service of the President of Uzbekistan," said Pravda Vostoka. "Surely, the majority of journalists [who write about Uzbekistan in the foreign press] are citizens of Uzbekistan. This, along with their journalistic duties, lays on them additional civic responsibilities."
The writer was not very specific about these "additional civic responsibilities." He didn’t need to be. In Uzbekistan, it is the censor’s job to make such things clear.
The Uzbek censorship code contains literally hundreds of specific prohibitions. According to the official "List of Information Prohibited from Publication," editors may not cover:
Border conditions and conflicts, unless the information has been released by an official source.
Military morale, the health of conscripts, and any other story that might "negatively characterize" the Uzbek armed forces.
Natural disasters involving human casualties.
Criminal activity, the prison population, and the national prison system (in particular, the number of prisons and their location). It is also forbidden to publish information about closed court hearings and ongoing investigations.
Estimates of the number of Uzbek citizens suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
Issues relating to nuclear energy, including radioactive contamination of air, soil, water, and food.
Agricultural problems, including livestock illnesses such as foot-and mouth disease.
Outbreaks of plague, cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Journalists are also not allowed to report on the discovery of new diseases.
Source: "List of Information Prohibited from Publication in District, City and Large-Circulation News papers, as well as Radio and Television Programs" (Internal Uzbek government document).
Adele Lotus is the pseudonym of an Uzbek journalist. Translated from the Russian by Olga Tarasov.