‘International community must exert more pressure on the governments in Central Asia to see them comply with standards on freedom of expression and abide by treaties they are a party to’ – consult key takeaways from our panel discussion on how to defend digital rights and media freedom in the region at RightsCon 2023.
In recent years, freedom of expression in Central Asia has become increasingly restricted. Governments across the region have adopted a series of controversial laws allowing them to increase their control over online content and abuse existing legislation to force their critics into self-censorship. Under the guise of tackling disinformation and hate speech, political leaders, have stepped up their attempts to muzzle independent media and discussions on issues of public interest.
Programme Officer at ARTICLE 19, Nedim Useinow facilitated a discussion on how the growing phenomenon of digital authoritarianism across Central Asia hinders the work of journalists and human rights defenders.
- Diana Okremova, Legal Media Center in Kazakhstan
- Akmat Alagushev, Media Policy Institute in Kyrgyzstan
- Saida Sulaymanova, Modern Journalism Development Center in Uzbekistan
- Speaker from Tajikistan
Kazakhstan – punishment for social media posts
The Kazakh authorities are determined to amend the country’s media law which sparks a great concern among civil society groups. The plan is to broaden the definition of mass media so that beyond professional outlets it would include bloggers or influencers.
The authorities aim to sanction preemptive censorship. This reform would act as a deterrent not only for independent journalists but also for bloggers and anybody expressing their views online, said Diana Okremova.
The ruling party denies these allegations, claiming that the war in Ukraine exacerbated the urgent need to counter disinformation and secure the flow of reliable news. Yet, Kazakhstan has previously proved that legislation initially enacted to tackle extremist and fake content is predominantly used to block websites and threaten journalists and activists critical towards the government. The new amendments would mean that a private opinion, sceptical about the government’s actions could be treated as a public statement and thus, face grave consequences.
Kyrgyzstan – following Russia’s steps
The atmosphere for free speech is rapidly backsliding also in Kyrgyzstan – once a champion for democratic freedoms in the region. The government moves ahead with its plans to enact ‘foreign agent’ legislation, in spite of a public outcry at home and harsh criticism from the international community.
The government deliberately uses the term a foreign representative to avoid any comparison to Russia but the draft bears a stark resemblance to the law designed by the Kremlin to shut down NGOs and independent media outlets by accusing them of serving foreign interests, said Akmat Alagushev.
If the law is passed, any institution receiving funds from abroad can fear legal actions being taken against them.
Concurrently, the government increases pressure on independent media and uses legislation on inciting hatred, terrorism and disinformation to remove inconvenient coverage. On 27 April, a court in Bishkek ruled to close Radio Azattyk the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) after 7 months of blockage following a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy. The Ministry accused the editorial team of disseminating ‘propaganda of war, violence and cruelty, national, religious exclusivity and intolerance towards other peoples and nations’ due to their coverage on the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2022.
Uzbekistan – arbitrary content removal increases
The authorities in Uzbekistan largely control the media through restrictive media laws and fuel censorship and self-censorship by expanding surveillance. The Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) and the Monitoring Center (MITC) are responsible for regulating online content. Decisions to block or remove content are not transparent and are made by the administrative body in a pre-trial order.
In 2020 the government passed amendments to a decree regulating ‘measures to improve information security’ on the internet which lead to dire consequences for civic space. Website owners are obliged to store their data in Uzbekistan and ensure that their servers are registered with Uzkomnazorat (the State Inspectorate for Control in the Sphere of Informatization and Telecommunications). The law gives the regulator the right to block websites that do not comply with the amendments.
The state apparatus continues to broaden the scope of ‘prohibited content’ which heavily affects media outlets and bloggers. The register of websites containing information prohibited for distribution is not publicly available. Neither are official orders to remove specific content, said Saida Sulaymanova.
Tajikistan – tightening the screw on civil society
Tajikistan has a long history of restricting political rights and civil liberties. Broad and arbitrary interpretation of anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws is used by the authorities to increase the pressure on journalists and civil society activists. In 2022, more than 10 journalists and activists were arrested on extremist-related allegations.
The unjustified application of this law heavily restricts the work of journalists and activists and drowns out any criticism of the government which further contributes to a suffocating climate for free speech and other fundamental civil liberties, said a speaker from Tajikistan.
The law criminalises such ‘offences’ as public insults of representatives of the authorities, and participation in illegal parties or associations deemed extremists. These accusations can be sufficient to put an individual in jail for at least 5 years.
All experts underscored the need for creating a broad united front comprised of journalists, bloggers, activists and lawyers to firmly oppose the ongoing shrinking of civic space online. Civil society actors must understand that these laws will most certainly continue to affect their work and life at an unprecedented scale. Steady and continued support of international rights organisations for local actors together compounded with ongoing monitoring of the situation are crucial to strengthen the advocacy and increase the pressure on the decision-makers.