Reporters sans frontières (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, is a Paris-based international non-governmental organization defending and promoting media and information freedom. It says it stands for an independent and pluralistic press as well as the protection of journalists and to defend media workers. Its advocacy is based on Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees access to information without any barriers.
RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index defines Central Asia as a region where "strongmen are consolidating their grip on news and information".
The annual index evaluates the conditions for media and journalists in 180 countries. The Central Asian republics have always been toward the bottom but there are some signs of hope this year, if tentative improvements in some countries continue.
"The closure of the national Internet is already a reality in Turkmenistan (179), which ranks second to last in the index. Its few Internet users can only access a highly censored version of the Internet, often in cafés where they have to show ID before connecting. In Tajikistan (161), the authorities also assumed an Internet access monopoly in 2018. New blocking techniques are being used that sometimes prevent use of a VPN to access the few independent media outlets such as Asia-Plus. In Kazakhstan (157), a country in transition, interference is becoming more effective, with Radio Azattyk, Google and Telegram being favorite targets," says the RSF report.
"Troublesome media outlets are subjected to cyber-attacks, as in Kyrgyzstan (82), whose pluralism is an exception in Central Asia."
Then there are some other longstanding issues manifest in all of the countries in the region:
"Denial of accreditation to journalists working for foreign media outlets or the threat of rescinding accreditation blocks access to information and encourages self-censorship. The local operations of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are especially affected in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (156), which has nonetheless risen four places thanks to reforms undertaken since President Islam Karimov’s death in 2016."
VOA's Navbahor Imamova talked to Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, who says that her organization recently launched a tool called Tracker 19, which not only monitors the impact of COVID-19 on journalism but also documents state censorship and disinformation.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: In your most recent analysis of the region, you mention some "disturbing signs..." What are the most disturbing signs across Central Asia? What worries you most?
Jeanne Cavelier, RSF: Disturbing signs are especially the increasing expertise in new technologies that the regimes that are authoritarian or unstable regimes are acquiring. It could result in more censorship of the media. For example, the closure of the national Internet is already a reality in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, the authorities also got an Internet access monopoly, and they now use new blocking techniques. Cuts are becoming more effective in Kazakhstan, a country in transition. Even in Kyrgyzstan, where pluralism is an exception, media outlets are subjected to cyber-attacks and last January, the authorities refused to investigate.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: According to the Uzbek government, the country has done much better than your assessment and Uzbekistan merits a higher ranking in your annual index. What's your response to that claim?
Jeanne Cavelier, RSF: Four years after President Karimov's death, press freedom in Uzbekistan has improved significantly. The last imprisoned journalists have been released, but not rehabilitated... Access to websites that were censored for years has been unblocked. Registration has been made easier. People can now see live political broadcasts, and some journalists are now covering sensitive subjects such as corruption and forced labor.
That's why the country has risen four places in the World Press Freedom Index this year. But criticizing the highest level of government is still out of the question. Plus the authorities hasn't yet carried out all the necessary reforms to the laws that constrain the media. Surveillance, threats, censorship and self-censorship are still present. Some journalists for foreign media have found it difficult to obtain accreditation.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What would you recommend to the governments in the region in dealing with media, as the countries battle the pandemic? What are the best ways to ensure media freedom as well as the health and safety of journalists?
Jeanne Cavelier, RSF: Without journalism, humankind could not address any global and major challenges. As we've seen with China, information control in a given country can have consequences all over the planet. We are suffering the effects of this today. So our recommendation is simply to respect the right to information about the coronavirus crisis. Governments must let their citizen access reliable, freely reported and diverse information about the pandemic.