Dear High Representative Mogherini,
As you are attending the 13th Annual EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting in Samarkand, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international Paris-based NGO that promotes media freedom worldwide, is writing to emphasize the urgent need to prioritize the human rights situation in Central Asian countries. We would like, in particular, to draw your attention to the dire situation of journalists and the media across the region.
Despite the pluralism of Kyrgyz media, which appears exceptional in the region, the situation of media freedom is bleak overall in Central Asia. Year after year, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are all ranked near the bottom of RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, and authoritarian tendencies are on the rise. News website blocking and Russian-inspired laws to curtail free expression are spreading, while journalists are often subject to torture and unlawful imprisonment.
● In Turkmenistan (178th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index), the state maintains full control over the media and the Internet, of which only a completely expurgated version is made accessible to the Turkmen population. Persecution of the few remaining independent journalists has intensified in recent years, forcing several of them to stop working due to constant harassment. Detention of journalists on trumped-up charges and violations to the right to a fair trial have persisted. The case of freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, held since July 2015, is emblematic. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described his imprisonment as arbitrary.
● At least five journalists continue to be detained in connection with their reporting in Uzbekistan (169th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index), despite recent signs of openness and the release of several prominent detainees, including the world’s longest-held journalist, Muhammad Bekjanov. The reported release of five other journalists with the newspaper Irmok has yet to be confirmed. The recent arrest of Uzbek freelancer Bobomurod Abdullayev and reported detention of prominent blogger Hayothon Nasriddinov are test cases for the new government, which has promised democratic reforms. Both have been denied access to a lawyer. Leading independent news websites such as Ferghana and Radio Ozodlik remain blocked within the country.
● The main opposition national newspapers were all banned in 2013 in Kazakhstan (157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index). The remaining few are collapsing under the impact of fines, and any new independent newspaper is inevitably closed within months. Journalists are often arrested and the Internet is now closely controlled, with mass surveillance, imprisonment of bloggers, and frequent cuts in access to news sites, social networks, and messaging services. After seven months in pre-trial detention, opposition journalist Zhanbolat Mamay was sentenced in September to a three-year restriction on his movements and a three-year ban on working as a journalist on a trumped-up money-laundering charge.
● The press freedom situation has deteriorated dramatically in recent years in Tajikistan (149th out of 180 in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index). 2016 saw the closure of several independent media outlets and the adoption of a decree reinforcing state control over the editorial policies of the broadcast media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation, and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of the few remaining independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent. Loosely-worded laws on terrorism and extremism, as well as new legislation protecting “Founder of Peace and Leader of the Nation” Emomali Rahmon, are used to threaten independent journalists.
● Media freedom faces increasing challenges in Kyrgyzstan (89th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index), although the situation is much better than in other Central Asian countries. There is a great deal of self-censorship on certain subjects, including inter-ethnic relations, and the polarization of Kyrgyz society is reflected in the environment for journalists. President Almazbek Atambayev and other politicians have sought colossal amounts in damages in the criminal defamation proceedings they have brought against critical media in 2017. The Ferghana news agency website was briefly blocked in June, the independent news website Zanoza was forced to close and register under a new name in July, and the Sentyabr TV station was shut down in August on the (much criticized) pretext that it had disseminated extremist material. Assaults on journalists were reported during the October presidential election.
Fostering greater respect for media freedom will help to increase the effectiveness of the EU’s cooperation with Central Asian countries in the areas of security and the economy. As a value-based union and Central Asia’s leading donor, the EU has a duty to secure real commitments in this regard in its partnership and cooperation with the region.
We thank you for your attention on this matter.