Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Uzbekistan: A Lifeboat for the Media

This piece originally appeared in Transitions Online on 22 March 2006. About a year after the Andijan masacre, Uzbekistan had become a media void, and it was time to protect the country's independent journalists from total extinction. Sadly, as I write this in April 2011, it still is.

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The fallout from last year's massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan continues throughout the country and throughout the region. Since 13 May 2005 – when state security forces fired on mostly unarmed civilian demonstrators, killing hundreds, perhaps even 1,000 – the regime's paranoia about independent public activity and its desperate drive to control information have accelerated with no apparent bounds.

Along with nongovernmental organizations and human-rights activists, the media has been a primary target. The regime has openly denounced journalists, both foreign and domestic, who reported on the massacre and the subsequent crackdown on witnesses and their families. Several international news organizations have come under harsh criticism, from the BBC, CNN, and the Associated Press to the Moscow-based service Ferghana.ru. Uzbek First Deputy General Prosecutor Anvar Nabiev called journalists from these media outlets "hyenas and jackals searching for carrion," and accused them of having known about the uprising plot beforehand and launching an "information war against Uzbekistan … simultaneously with [the] terrorist aggression."

Photos of foreign journalists in Uzbekistan have been featured on Uzbek national television's main evening news program in reports headed "overview of participation of foreign media in the events of 13 May 2005." Many Uzbek journalists have been forced into exile, though their families and friends still face threats back home. Most foreign media have had to suspend news gathering in Uzbekistan, and the regime continues to broadly reject applications for accreditation of foreign journalists and foreign news bureaus. The passage of a new media law in February, which makes it illegal to work as a reporter in Uzbekistan without accreditation from the Foreign Ministry, codified the practice. Following the BBC, Internews, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others in past months, the latest outlet to have its accreditation cancelled was Deutsche Welle, on 16 March.

Icebergs ahead

In short, in less than a year, Uzbekistan has become a media void: very little independent information gets in, and even less gets out. Couple this with widespread human-rights violations, growing economic hardship, and environmental degradation due to blinkered agricultural policies focused on intensive cotton production, and it is little wonder social tensions are explosive.

Preventing mounting societal pressures from boiling over into conflict may no longer be possible, but governments and organizations that care what happens in Uzbekistan can and should make some preparations to cushion the blow when it comes – for the sake of Uzbeks, for the stability of the region, and in the interest of the wider international community, which has a huge stake in neighboring Afghanistan. One place to start is with the media.

Trying to reverse the dismal trends and actually expand the scope for freedom of information in the current Uzbek atmosphere may seem a dim prospect. Yet, while difficult to implement on the ground, media development and freedom-of-information projects are still possible for the Central Asian state. What is needed, and what is still possible to implement, are "lifeboat strategies": projects that can maintain media skills and journalistic integrity – and provide independent information to and about the country – in the expectation of future change to a more reasonable government.

Preparations need to be made now, so that when society does open up again, skilled, responsible journalists and an effective media infrastructure can respond quickly to meet the information needs of a transforming country. A closer look at the opportunities demonstrates just what might be achievable if the international community makes a well-funded and concerted response to the currently deteriorating situation.

Cloak-and-dagger journalism

First, there should be support for an independent journalism training center in the region. The trainers and lecturers should be experienced Central Asian journalists.

Second, international donors should help fund the establishment of a Central Asian news agency, with anonymous correspondents throughout Uzbekistan and editors to coordinate their reports and protect their identities. These dispatches could be provided to international news agencies, and thus offer regional and wider media access to independent daily information from across Uzbekistan.

In the current climate, asking journalists to collect information inside Uzbekistan presents serious practical and ethical problems. The risks are great, but there are numerous journalists and activists who are willing to take that risk, and the value of their reports is irreplaceable. Editors (based in less repressive countries, such as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan) must take all measures possible to protect the identity of their correspondents, who essentially work underground with no open office, no legal registration, and no accreditation. Official sources can be contacted by phone by other writers outside the country. To prevent infiltration and destruction of the reporting network by the security services, the individual correspondents inside the country should not know each other, maintaining communication only with their editor. All such communications must be secure.

These are extreme measures, more associated with spy networks than journalism, but the regime's excessively heavy hand against professional journalists makes such precautions essential. These tactics are already employed with significant success by some news organizations reporting in Turkmenistan, where the regime is just as repressive, if not more so.

Third, there must be new avenues for broadcasting information into Uzbekistan. These might include direct-to-home satellite broadcasting (several systems are currently in development but as yet have few plans for independent content), as well as broadcasts from radio stations just over the border if political reluctance in the neighboring countries can be overcome. Existing online news services also deserve additional funding. Internet access is limited within the country, but online reports are read by the most influential and best educated – those in the current regime along with, presumably, anyone likely to play a major role in a future government.

Escape routes

Finally, and perhaps most critically if any of this is going to work, there needs to be a protection fund to help journalists whose cover is blown or who otherwise run into trouble with the Uzbek authorities. It is essential that any journalist facing problems as a result of working with an undercover news-gathering project has a retirement option other than prison in a country where torture has been copiously documented by human-rights groups and labeled "systematic" by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

This fund would support legal assistance, short-term accommodation abroad, help with asylum applications, job placement and the like. Some international journalism groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have been trying to meet these needs, but their human and financial resources are extremely limited. In 2005, CPJ worked with eight Uzbek journalists in exile, but it had to dedicate a substantial portion of its global emergency funds to do so. If underground reporting is expanded as it should be, donors will have to help boost resources to protect journalists.

Likely countries of refuge must also look favorably on asylum applications from Uzbeks working in the media. Unfortunately, this was not always the case after the Andijan massacre, when many Western embassies refused to help Uzbek journalists, who found themselves pursued by the authorities because of their reporting of events. True, this system would be open to some abuse, but the need for the information gathered and reported to the country, and to the world, far outweighs the risk that a few individuals might cheat the system to obtain a visa to the West.

Build on past efforts

The situation in Uzbekistan could all too easily lead to despair and a feeling that it might simply be better to wait until political changes present wider scope for democracy-assistance projects. But although the obstacles are many, and the dangers to individuals great, the prospects are not as hopeless as may first appear. Limited openings do exist, and there are a number of very real opportunities to promote journalistic professionalism and freedom of information.

Uzbekistan has something of an advantage over other authoritarian-ruled countries around the world because it benefited from a small wave of media-development projects in the late 1990s and early years of this decade, which laid the groundwork for a viable, free press and produced able journalists who are now prepared to carry on that tradition, even if from exile.

In fact, it is thanks to representatives from that initial crop of journalist trainees that the world learned the details of the Andijan massacre from first-hand accounts. If no one maintains these media-development efforts, there is unlikely to be anyone on the ground to report the next massacre.

Apart from maintaining at least some check on the exercise of power, freedom of information and the work of skilled media professionals can also help cushion the blow when a despotic system finally unravels. A dramatic political upheaval without timely, experienced, and balanced reporting on the ground is a recipe for both heightened chaos and violence domestically, and for ill-informed decision-making among the international community as it attempts to keep up with rapidly changing events. Pursuing these media lifeboat strategies could help Uzbeks ride out the rough waters toward which they seem inevitably headed.

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