The ongoing effort by Armenia’s government to dam the free flow of information during the country’s state of emergency fits nicely into a distressing pattern concerning press freedom in CIS states. Far from thriving, independent media outlets in most CIS nations are struggling merely to keep operating.

Independent-minded journalists and media outlets often face adversity and retribution if they strive to fill a traditional watchdog role. In Azerbaijan, for example, a Baku district court on January 18 sentenced Avaz Zeynalli, the editor in chief of the “Xural” newspaper, to 18 months of corrective labor and a hefty fine on charges of defaming the director of a state-owned publishing house in a series of critical articles.

A few days later, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Uzeyir Cafarov, a journalist for Azerbaijan’s “Baki Zaman” (Baku Time) daily had received numerous death threats from anonymous callers after he had written critical reports on the army and Defense Ministry.

More recently in Kazakhstan, an Astana court ordered February 14 the closure of the Zakon i Pravosudiye (Law and Justice) weekly, alleging that mistakes had been made during its registration. Staffers insist the court ruling is merely a pretext for muzzling an independent media outlet known for its investigative reports on corruption.

Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based media watchdog that specializes in monitoring and protecting the rights of journalists across the CIS. In his view, the media environment in most of post-Soviet countries — including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Central Asia, and Russia — can be described as “appalling.”

By contrast, Georgia has expunged its criminal code of repressive articles traditionally used against journalists. Yet, the Russian rights activist says that even there the situation “is not ideal.”

“Many post-Soviet countries are following Russia’s example, as if they were competing among each other to create the worst possible conditions for independent journalism,” Panfilov told a roundtable discussion organized in late February in Vienna by the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Milkos Haraszti, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his tenure.

In Panfilov’s view, independent journalism in Belarus and Uzbekistan now faces “total disappearance,” while in Turkmenistan there are still no indications that the economic liberalization initiated by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will allow for even partially independent media outlets to emerge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In Tajikistan, media outlets remain “economically very weak” and, therefore, vulnerable to official pressure. According to Panfilov, President Imomali Rahmon’s administration in Dushanbe “is unwilling to allow competitors [to] challenge state propaganda.”

Media conditions in Kazakhstan, a country where the influx of energy wealth is helping to create a middle class, have deteriorated in recent years. Most major media holdings are now either in the hands of the state, or are controlled by close friends and relatives of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Following the fall into disgrace of Nazarbayev’s now former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, the latter’s extensive media holdings — including the Kazakhstan Today news agency, the Karavan newspaper, and the KTK television channel — were transferred to the state. The new holding is now headed by Nazarbayev’s former spokesman Zhanai Omarov.

Kazakh authorities in 2007 temporarily shut down several opposition-leaning websites for publishing documents pertaining to the Aliyev-Nazarbayev feud, and the government is now striving to finalize plans to put domestic Internet content under strict control. “The government wants to be an active player in Internet technologies from a content perspective. We must offer [users] content,” Kazakhstan’s State Computerization and Communications Agency head Kuanyshbek Yesekeyev said in December.

Post-Soviet governments are particularly adept at putting financial pressure on independent media outlets.

Addressing the OSCE roundtable discussion, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg mentioned Azerbaijan, where he said businessmen are being advised to not place advertisements in newspapers that are critical of authorities.

Another favored weapon of post-Soviet governments is the denial of frequencies, or the revocation of licenses to independent radio and television broadcasters — a practice that is common in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, among others.

Yet it is physical violence that poses perhaps the greatest threat to independent journalists.

According to the Almaty-based Adil Soz media watchdog, three independent Kazakh journalists — Yernazar Ibrayev, Tolegen Kibatov and Ilyas Gafurov — were murdered in 2007 under mysterious circumstances. Another 10 reporters were physically assaulted and Zakon i Pravosudiye corruption expert Oralgaisha Zhabagtaikyzy has been missing for almost a year.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov was gunned down in the southern city of Osh in October 2007, in what observers believe was a politically motivated act. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank says it suspects Tashkent of involvement in the murder. A member of Uzbekistan’s exiled Erk opposition party, Saipov was the editor in chief of the “Siyosat” (Politics) weekly. The Kyrgyz government suggests the journalist may have been killed because of his alleged involvement with banned radical Islamic groups and has stopped investigating the case. CPJ and other international media watchdogs remain skeptical of the Islamic radical-connection claim, and demand that the official probe resume.

Whether there is a link between Saipov’s assassination and Uzbekistan’s December 23 presidential ballot is unclear. Yet, as a rule, the number of attacks on independent and opposition media in the former Soviet Union tends to increase around elections.

In Georgia, for instance, Georgian security forces in November raided the headquarters of the opposition Imedi TV amid a general crackdown on opposition protesters, ransacking the premises, and ordering all staff out of the building. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Panfilov told the OSCE media panel that in Armenia more than 10 journalists were physically assaulted during the months preceding the February 19 presidential polls. He said similar incidents took place in Kyrgyzstan prior to the December 16 legislative ballot.

Firdevs Robinson, editor of the BBC World Service’s Central Asia and Caucasus Service, in turn noted that with presidential elections approaching in Azerbaijan “there seems to be less and less room for dissenting voices.”

On December 28, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned five of eight opposition journalists convicted under criminal charges described as politically motivated by human rights groups. The three who remain in jail — Qanimat and Mirza Sakit Zahidov of the Azadliq (Freedom) daily and Eynulla Fatullayev, editor in chief of Realny Azerbaijan (Real Azerbaijan) and Gundalik Azarbaycan (Daily Azerbaijan) — were joined by “Bizim Yol” (Our Path) daily reporter Musfiq Huseynov, who was handed a six-year jail sentence on bribery charges in January.

The OSCE’s Haraszti told a December 13 hearing of the United States Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe that the moratorium on the criminalization of journalists Aliyev had declared in 2004 seemed to be no longer in force. In addition, he said “critically-minded reporters” were now being sentenced for alleged criminal offences unrelated to their professional activities, such as hooliganism, or possession of drugs.

Criminalization of journalists — which is also a common practice in Kazakhstan — can only encourage rampant violence against representatives of the media and must therefore be banned, Haraszti said during the OSCE panel discussion.

Editor’s Note: Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.

Jean-Christophe Peuch