World Press Freedom Day in a “not free” place

Askat Dukenbaev announces the Freedom House "Freedom of the Press" results for Kyrgyzstan at a press conference. Image: Eric Freedman

Askat Dukenbaev announces the Freedom House “Freedom of the Press” results for Kyrgyzstan at a press conference. Image: Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – May 1 was World Press Freedom Day, an event marked – but not celebrated – by release of Freedom House’s annual country-by-country assessment of the state of press rights across the globe.
Clearly 2013 wasn’t a stellar year. As Karin Karlekar, the Freedom House project director, said in releasing the 2014 report, “We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger.”

U.S.-based Freedom House is a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that supports democratization and human rights, including press rights and Internet user rights. [In the interest of full disclosure, I served as a reviewer of drafts of the Central Asia and Caucasus sections of this year’s report.]
Karlekar continued, “In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”
This reality has direct implications for environmental journalism, as we shall see.
For the second consecutive year, I marked – not celebrated – World Press Freedom Day in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is by far the most democratic and freest of the five ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, but it has a long way to go to develop and sustain a deeply pluralistic, economically viable and free press system.
For the second consecutive year, I attended a press conference in Bishkek releasing Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press” findings for the country. Its country project director, Askat Dukenbaev, delivered the news to more than 20 local journalists, plus a couple of anti-gay rights activists who showed up for the event.
My trip this spring to Kyrgyzstan was sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and the U.S. Agency for International Development for lecturing, professional journalist workshops and collaborating with journalism and mass communication faculty at American University of Central Asia.

No journalists murdered

At the press conference, Dukenbaev laid out the basic findings. The bottom line: in 2013, press freedom in Kyrgyzstan improved by three points on a scale of 0 to 100 but still faces many obstacles to achieve even “partly free” status.
On the positive side in 2013: No journalists were murdered and “the number of serious attacks declined.” Parliament declined to pass regressive legislation that had “the potential to limit press freedom.” – one bill would have required nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that get foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” and another would have expanded the definition of “treason” to “encompass many activities carried out by journalists.”
Such evaluations present only a snapshot in time, and last year’s positive trend could reverse in 2014. For example, President Almazbek Atambaev is considering whether to sign a parliament-passed bill to recriminalize libel, subjecting journalists – and others – to a possible five years in prison. That would represent a 180-degree change from 2011 when Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to decriminalize libel.
At the same time in a refreshing and long-await step, a court has agreed to reopen the investigation of the conviction of independent journalist and human rights activist Azimijon Askarov. He is serving a life sentence on trumped up charges of inciting ethnic hatred and involvement in a police officer’s murder in 2010.
As Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “The first investigation that landed Askarov in jail was marred by conflict of interest, intimidation of the defense, lack of evidence and judicial bias.”
The outcome of the new review is uncertain, of course, but the fact that it will take place after years of lobbying press rights and human rights groups is a good sign.

Environmental implications

How is the country’s press environment relevant to environmental journalism?
Sitting in a restaurant in Jalal-Abad, a regional capital in the South, it’s clear that Rysbeck Akenshaev holds no doubts that climate change is real.
Akenshaev heads the forestry department for Jalal-Abad oblast, or province, and he says rainfall has been far below normal levels for more than 10 years. That’s of concern when your agency is responsible for large tracts of forestland and when there’s not enough grass to feed the sheep and cattle grazing on that land.
That’s also of concern when your agency is responsible for Arslenbob, the world’s largest natural walnut forest and a resource that local people have long relied on to earn a livelihood.
Scientists estimate that Kyrgyzstan lost more than half its forests in the past half-century. If the trend continues and logging continues at its present pace, Central Asia could face water scarcity, more frequent natural disasters and health problems, experts say.
This year’s rainfall is heavier than usual, and that’s also of concern to Akenshaev. The reason? Heavy rains erode the soil, causing problems for farmers and foresters.
This seemingly provides a basis for lots of environmental stories, but in Kyrgyzstan – and much of the world – it also treads on politically sensitive ground. For instance, it implicates public funding for conservation services, competing demands between development and economic growth, local reliance on natural resources and science-based land management decisions.
The political sensitivity of mining is even more evident.
When I spoke to university students in Kyzla-Kya, a small city in the country’s furthest-south oblast, a major controversy came up during our discussion. It involves a gold mine proposed for the nearby village of Maydan. The project would be led by an Australian company.
A faculty member at the university, who lives within sight of the proposed project, sharply criticized it to me. It reflects a classic battle that pits the prospect of jobs and spin-off economic benefits against prospective environmental problems and disruption of traditional patterns of community life.
A similar debate has been playing out for the past several years in the far-eastern part of Kyrgyzstan, where Canadian company Centerra operates the largest gold mine in Central Asia.
As my blog post from Bishkek last fall pointed out, environmental problems here are urban as well as rural and directly affect the lives of the citizenry.
For journalists – whether they work for state-owned, opposition or independent news organizations — coverage of such issues can be difficult. Powerful political and economic interests, the threat of libel suits and lack of government transparency make it challenging – and sometimes impossible – to do far, balanced and accurate reporting.
Many journalists acknowledge that they engage in self-censorship. Many news organizations lack the financial resources, including travel budgets, to cover these issues well. Eco-NGOs are often unsophisticated in media relations and are sometimes expected to pay for favorable coverage – a practice called “envelope journalism.”
Practicing journalism under such conditions requires bravery, and journalists in Kyrgyzstan repeatedly display courage in pursuing stories under such limitations.
When I was in Osh, the country’s second-largest city, in late April, I ate lunch with three journalists, including Shokhrukh Saipov, an editor who was brutally assaulted in 2011. His brother and fellow journalist Alisher Saipov, was murdered in the same city in 2007. Both crimes remain unsolved.
As the new Freedom House report noted, “Journalists covering sensitive topics continued to report threats in 2013, often by politicians and government figures who were known to them.”