SECTION of DOCUMENT:
Ethics - a Western luxury?
By David Mould and Elizabeth Schuster
Central Asia stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, from the flat steppe of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Turkmenistan to the fertile agricultural regions of Uzbekistan and the high mountain ranges of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Its five countries, all former Soviet republics which gained independence in 1990-1991, are experiencing a difficult transitional period. All are weathering severe economic crises, although the vast oil and gas deposits of the Caspian Sea region promise future prosperity to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. All are grappling with population shifts as minorities, particularly Russians and Germans, emigrate, and impoverished rural families move to the cities. All to varying degrees are experiencing rising nationalism, ethnic tensions and a resurgence of Islam. In the 19th century, Britain and Russia competed for influence in this region in what historians call "The Great Game." Today Russia is attempting to reassert its influence with competition from Turkey, Iran, China and the West.
The Soviet legacy: Opinion before fact
The Soviet legacy: Opinion before fact
Journalism in Central Asia has been shaped by social and historical factors which developed over several generations of socialistic literary traditions. Soviet journalism was rooted in a deep-seated tradition of opinion before fact, message before content. Nineteenth-century publicists or tract writers such as Chernoshevsky, Gertsin and Pisarev, who were deeply involved in early socialist movements, are still remembered as journalistic heroes. Often forced to publish underground because of their anti-tsarist sentiments, the publicists used an investigative style to expose social and economic inequality. Early 20th century revolutionists followed this pattern in their reporting and other writings.
Recognizing the power of the written word, post-revolutionary communists set strict selection standards for journalism schools. The ideal candidate came from a Communist Party family and was ideologically
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committed to the policies and programs of the state. Journalism studies focused not on information gathering and accuracy, but on literary style, Marxist-Leninist doctrine and general socio-economic knowledge. A degree in journalism was considered one of the most prestigious in the country, nearly equal to diplomatic training, although both occupations were considered somewhat precarious.
This is not to say that no critical voices existed under communism. Generations of journalists in the U.S.S.R. wrote on issues of poverty, health and even freedom of speech. However, in addressing such questions, journalists under both the communist and the new regimes nearly always base their articles on opinions supported by facts, rather than facts occasionally moderated by an editorial word. Under a system where the role of all media was to serve the state and help advance society towards common goals, the distinction between news and opinion, fact and comment, was essentially irrelevant. Although many journalists now working in Central Asia are younger than 30, in many cases the older generation still wields the pen and microphone. In addition, those who did not receive journalistic training under the Soviet system - or got no training at all are strongly influenced by Soviet journalistic tradition.
The most obvious difference between Western and Soviet era/Central Asian journalism is the lack of distinction between opinion and fact. Many newspaper and broadcast media owners and reporters speak openly of "my mission," and take a polemical, "let's fix it" approach to social, political and other issues. The inverted pyramid style and the notion of leaving the audience to reach its own conclusions are still rare; as one reader put it, "I read newspapers so I know what to think about what is happening."
Soviet journalism has also left its mark on writing style. Partly because of their literary training, partly because they see themselves as opinion leaders rather than fact gatherers, Central Asian journalists often use complex grammatical structures, restated rather than direct quotes, and even stream of consciousness thought processes - devices to make their articles aesthetically distinctive. Use of the conceit, a memorable witti-
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cism or question at the end of an article or broadcast report marks the work of even the most factual journalists.
The issue is complex because terms such as "facts," "opinion" and "analysis" have hazy semantic boundaries. Western journalists who urge their post-Soviet colleagues to "stick to the facts" are somewhat ambivalent because the recent trend in Western media has been away from straight reporting towards analytic and interpretive journalism, where it is much easier to cross the line between fact and opinion. Central Asian journalists have been receiving mixed messages from the West - on the one hand, to separate facts from opinion, and on the other to be more interpretive, analytical, even critical in their coverage. When asked outright, Central Asian journalists usually agree with the principle of separating facts from opinion, but in practice they continue to merge the two. For those who worked or were educated under the Soviet system, old mindsets are hard to break.
The ethical challenge of nation-building
The ethical challenge of nation-building
For the political leaders of Central Asia, nation-building - creating a sense of unity, history and common purpose among a diverse population - has been as great a challenge as economic development. In their list of priorities, stability, order and ethnic harmony rank much higher than political or press freedom. They fear that granting too much freedom will unleash divisive ethnic, religious and political forces. What is the point of liberty, they argue, if it destroys the nation? Freedom must wait until the nation is secure from internal and external threats. During a time of social, political and economic transition, they urge journalists to be patient, to refrain from criticism and join in the task of nation-building.
For the five Central Asian republics independence came suddenly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike other developing countries in Asia or Africa, there was no long struggle against a colonial power, no liberation army emerging from the mountains or jungles to be cheered by flag-waving crowds, no government in exile, no heroes or martyrs to freedom. Citizens of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic suddenly
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found themselves citizens of the independent republic of Uzbekistan; here, as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan the transition to independence, while not occurring overnight, was swift indeed.
While achieving independence is one thing, creating a nation is another. Each Central Asian republic faces a severe national identity crisis. Soviet governments, fearful of ethnic unrest and Islamic revival in the region, practiced a policy of divide and rule. Artificial boundaries were drawn to ensure that no single ethnic group was numerically dominant in a republic; millions of Russians and other ethnic groups were encouraged or forced to settle on the new Soviet frontier. Consequently the new republics, which have the same boundaries as their Soviet predecessors, have large ethnic minorities, whose loyalty to the new state is understandably suspect. Central Asia, noted the New York Times, looks like "a medieval map" where power is defined by ethnicities and clans, not by a country's borders. Ethnic Kazakhs are a minority (albeit the largest one) in Kazakhstan, making up about 41 per cent of the population. Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, is close to the border with Uzbekistan and more than half its population is Uzbek. Samarkand and Bukhara - the fabled medieval cities of Uzbekistan - are dominated by ethnic Tajiks. Almost a quarter of Tajikistan's population is ethnically Uzbek. With the possible exception of Turkmenistan, all the Central Asian republics have a rich, but potentially volatile ethnic mix.
From a Western perspective, it may appear that Central Asian journalists face a difficult ethical dilemma, having to choose between their professional responsibility to report honestly, without regard for possible consequences, and their patriotic duty to support their countries during difficult times. However, many journalists do not see this as an issue; they believe they should play a positive role in nation-building, particularly in promoting harmony between ethnic, religious and other groups. All have seen the terrible consequences of factional conflict in neighboring countries, particularly in Afghanistan, Chechnya and the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus. Tensions are still high in Tajikistan, the smallest and poorest of the Central Asian republics, in the aftermath of a five-year civil war between pro-government and Islamic
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factions that started in 1993. In Kyrgyzstan independence was followed by violent inter-ethnic conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south. In such an environment many journalists are prepared to sacrifice some independence in the interests of holding a nation together.
The problem is where to draw the line between social responsibility and unquestioning obedience to government officials who may be acting out of their own, rather than national, interests. Is it really in the country's interest for the president's family and friends to be able to buy state property at bargain basement prices or to be granted valuable national TV broadcast licenses? Probably not, but reporting critically on the shady business dealings of those in power is often regarded as unpatriotic because it reflects poorly on the national leadership. Indeed, it is easy for governments to claim that the merest hint of criticism threatens fragile national stability.
How far journalists go along with government in the interests of nation-building varies significantly. In Turkmenistan independent media exist in name only and most journalists take seriously their role of explaining government decisions - a role that has changed little since Soviet times. In 1996 President Saparmurad Niyazov - already officially the Turkmenbashi or "father of all the Turkmen people" - declared himself the founder of all local newspapers published in the republic. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Niyazov tolerates no dissent, defending press censorship "as necessary for Turkmenistan's transition to sovereignty and a market economy." The editor of Neutral Turkmenistan says the primary role of the media is to prevent conflict by "propagating the policy of the President." The atmosphere in Uzbekistan is less repressive, but Babakhan Sharipov, chief editor of The Uzbekistan Voice, takes a similar position: "The main task of journalists in our republic is to help the State and President, to educate the people to work in peace and assure the great future of Uzbekistan." Such unquestioning allegiance is unusual in the other republics, at least outside the pages of government newspapers, but journalists are still conscious of their role in nation-building.
The principles of ethnic tolerance are enshrined in the constitutions of all the Central Asian republics and repeated in ethics codes adopted by
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journalists' associations. Kyrgyzstan's official code (see Annex 1), issued by the government-controlled Union of Journalists and the President's press secretary, is replete with glittering generalities, calling on journalists to not only avoid discrimination but "to promote the process of democratization of society and the consolidation of the peoples of the Kyrgyz Republic." Kazakhstan's 1997 Code of Ethics on Ethnic Relations (see Annex 2) was endorsed by 36 newspapers and six radio and TV stations. Ignoring the inconvenient historical fact that Kazakhstan was the product of Soviet political geography, it declares that Kazakhstani society was formed "organically" by people of different languages, religions, customs and traditions. It calls not only for respect for the rights and freedoms of others, regardless of ethnic origin, but states that the press should promote "civil responsibility, state identity and Kazakhstani patriotism" and strengthen the "long-standing traditions of inter-ethnic accord in Kazakhstan."
Had this code been published only in government-subsidized Kazakh-language newspapers, it would be easy to dismiss it as a public relations exercise by the Nazarbayev regime. But the majority of those signing on were Russian-language publications including Karavan, the largest-circulation newspaper in Central Asia, commercial radio and TV stations and newspapers published in Ukrainian, German, Korean, Turkmen and Uigur. Most Kazakhstani journalists - even those critical of the regime - stop short of commenting on ethnic issues. Such questions are, as opposition party leader and political columnist Seydahkmet Kuttykadam puts it, "like rocks in shallow water." Ethnic tensions - particularly between Kazakhs and Russians - have indeed never been far from the surface. In 1986, when the First Secretary of the Communist Party, an ethnic Kazakh, was replaced by a Russian, student protests in the capital quickly turned to inter-ethnic violence. Since independence jobs in government, state concerns, education and other fields have chiefly gone to ethnic Kazakhs, causing resentment among the non-Kazakh population.
"In Kazakhstan, we have law and we have practice. We can write on any theme - the issue is HOW we write about it," says Andrey Sviridov, independent journalist and media researcher.
Faced with direct and indirect pressures, journalists often set their own boundaries. These boundaries are by no means stable or universally accepted. Indeed, they constantly shift depending on the political climate, economic conditions or the attitudes of media managers and owners. But they are always there. Almost every journalist interviewed for this study admitted to self-censorship and at least occasional pressure not to cover certain subjects. Uzbekistan journalist Ekaterina Khlopovskikh has faced indirect pressures throughout her career. Working in the foreign language service of Radio Tashkent's Department of Propaganda and Information in the 1980s, she ran into trouble for critical reporting. "The editor would grit his teeth and pass [my story]on to our 12 translators. All 12 of them would ask 'Is that really right?' when I would send critical pieces." According to her, not much has changed in Uzbekistan since Soviet times. Journalists know how far they can go and President Karimov's personal business is certainly off limits: "It is unlikely that journalists could find out much personal information on the president ... But even if somehow information was obtained about his illicit dealings, writing about it would demolish any hopes of continuing a career in journalism." In Uzbekistan journalists either avoid the subject of politics altogether, or use the official version. "Political discourse," notes the Open Media Research Institute, "remains at the level of announcing President Karimov's foreign trips and reprints of presidential decrees. There is little chance for alternative views to be heard." The new business publications support the Uzbek government policies of privatization and regulation of foreign investment. Media may not depend on government for money, but in Khlopovskikh's opinion, "We do not have non-governmental journalists." There is no formal censorship in Kazakhstan, but only the strongest and most independent journalists - those who themselves have supporters within the ruling elite - run the risk of reporting on the activities of politicians and business figures. According to Kuttykadam, journalists should avoid the following six topics:
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As a well-known political columnist for Argumenty i Fakty, Kuttykadam feels secure enough to "systematically" break all but the last of these journalistic taboos, but he is probably the exception. Almaty Radio NS station director Galina Omarova says journalists are afraid to investigate the activities of large companies because "if they end up in court, no one will protect them." Sometimes government agencies will investigate a company, then use the press to expose its shady deals. "Then the government says to the press, as to a dog: 'Go get 'em!'" Journalism professor Gulnara Asanbayeva says censorship is not direct: "Calls come from the government press service or the akim [governor]. This is a game of democracy." In Tajikistan, where journalists have been killed, imprisoned or forced to flee, caution is essential. "I know that journalists know a lot more than they write," says one, "they restrict themselves." As in Kazakhstan, one of the most sensitive topics is the privatization of state property; officials have taken bribes to undervalue enterprises, which have then been sold to political and business interests for a fraction of their true market value. When the World Bank called for new laws to clean up the process, this journalist was careful not to criticize the old system. "I can't afford to step on any toes. You have to insure yourself and be your own best censor."
In such an environment, it is not difficult to understand or sympathize with media organizations and journalists that prefer not to take risks. Even in Kyrgyzstan, where arguably there is still more press freedom than in other Central Asian republics, tackling controversial stories is bad for business. Television and radio stations have been threatened with loss of licenses, newspapers summarily closed by the Ministry of Justice and journalists tried in court for criminal libel.
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On a daily basis, self-censorship by journalists tends to be reflected in a strong emphasis on official news - the daily round of meetings, receptions, ceremonies and press conferences, held at ministries, city halls and state universities. Of course such preplanned events are easy to cover because they are scheduled and the participants, who want publicity for their programs, are only too willing to oblige. However, these events are covered regardless of whether they have any news value or not. Inevitably this places journalists in a subordinate position, because it is the officials who end up determining what is news. The issue here is the definition of news, and whether journalists are simply reactive - taking what is offered by government, business or other institutions - or proactive, producing news which is of concern and interest to the community.
Language policy and fears of Russian media influence
Language policy and fears of Russian media influence
Language has become a political statement with significant ethical implications for journalists in Central Asia. In the attempt to create a national culture separate and distinct from the Soviet past, each republic has actively promoted its native language and limited the use of Russian. Uzbekistan has gone furthest, changing from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. The politics of language are felt most strongly in education and the media. Russian-language newspapers are still more widely read and attract more advertising revenue than native-language newspapers. With financial independence comes editorial independence; on political and economic stories, Russian-language newspapers tend to be more analytical and critical than native language newspapers. With a few exceptions, such as the Kazakh-language tabloid Aigat and the Kyrgyz-language opposition newspaper Asaba, most native-language newspapers depend wholly or partly on government subsidies to survive and so tend to be more conservative and supportive of official policy. "Uzbek-language journalism," says TV station owner and artist Shukrat Babajanov, "is long-winded, like a sermon. Journalists praise the regime like a choir!"
Kazakhstan's aggressive language policy is well illustrated by a 1997 law requiring radio and TV stations to devote half their broadcast time
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to Kazakh-language material. It is difficult to enforce the law, because little licensed programming or music is available in Kazakh and few stations have the resources to dub or subtitle programs. Even if stations could comply, it would be financially disastrous to do so because they would lose most of their Russian-speaking viewers and their advertisers. Stations in Russian-dominated northern Kazakhstan would quickly go out of business. Nevertheless, the law has enabled local authorities to put pressure on stations, forcing them to hire journalists to produce Kazakh-language news. In 1998, authorities invoked the law in an unsuccessful attempt to close a television station and radio station in the third largest city, Shymkent, which has a predominantly Kazakh population. The action was clearly politically motivated because both stations broadcast more Kazakh-language programming than stations in other cities.
Kyrgyzstan has no such language law, but Piramida, the leading Russian-language commercial TV station, finds it politic to offer a nightly Kyrgyz-language newscast. In ethnically mixed southern Kyrgyzstan, Osh TV, which once broadcast only in Uzbek and Russian, now keeps the local authorities happy by broadcasting in Kyrgyz one day a week.
Government attempts to promote indigenous-language broadcasting have so far met with limited success. State television channels broadcasting in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek find it tough to compete with the high-quality programming from Russian networks or even in some countries with local commercial stations offering imported movies, soaps and sports. Despite large investments in equipment and facilities, state television has yet to shake off its dour Soviet-era image and draw viewers and advertisers away from Russian-language channels. However, the Russian networks all rely on government transmitters to rebroadcast in Central Asia and Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have attempted to cut the number of daily hours broadcast by Russian TV. The official reason is financial - either the networks have not paid for transmitter use, or they are charging too much for retransmission. But the issue runs deeper; restricting Russian television broadcasts is a way of limiting what is perceived as continuing Russian political, economic and cultural influence in the region. As post-Soviet media observer Monroe Price has perceptively noted: "In the emerging battle
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for identities [in the former Soviet Union]... independence has often meant, above all, freedom from televised images produced by Russia."
Central Asian governments have long claimed that Russian media paint a distorted picture of the region, focusing on civil disorder, ethnic conflict, poverty, economic chaos and official corruption. Whatever the real or perceived agenda of Russian media, negative coverage is often seen as an insult to national pride and honor, a barrier to nation-building. Reports on economic, social or political problems, whether accurate or not, are often deemed as affronts to national pride or, worse, as subversive or destabilizing. Uzbek authorities censor Russian newspapers printed in Tashkent. In 1995, as the country prepared to celebrate the fourth anniversary of its independence, the government ordered state television to stop broadcasting two Russian news programs, apparently fearing their coverage of the independence events would be "inadequate." The next year, after a series of articles in Russian newspapers exposed corruption and political repression in Uzbekistan, the official press claimed that "hostile coverage" was an attempt by Russia to play Big Brother in the region. A 1997 Human Rights Watch report on censorship and media freedom in Uzbekistan noted that Russian media have been "particularly hard hit ... with reductions in rebroadcasting of Russian programs and in the accessibility of Russian newspapers."
In 1995 President Nazarbayev warned that he would ask all Kazakhstanis to distrust Russian media unless they began publishing "objective information" about the country. In May 1996 a group of writers called for a ban on Komsomolskaya Pravda, the most popular Russian newspaper in the country, for inciting ethnic hatred and "violating the territorial integrity" of Kazakhstan. The newspaper had published an interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn in which he called for northern regions of Kazakhstan to be reunited with Russia. Although the newspaper did not endorse Solzhenitsyn's position and published letters opposing it, it was eventually forced to issue a public apology.
In Kyrgyzstan Russian television caused an uproar with a 1997 story about conditions at a children's home near the capital, Bishkek. The footage, aired on the three main networks, ORT, RTR and NTV, showed naked, emaciated and sickly children living in filthy conditions, with
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minimal adult supervision. The video had been shot the previous summer for a Danish charitable organization, which claimed its rights, and those of the children, had been violated because the video was used without permission. For the government of Kyrgyzstan, the broadcast was highly embarrassing, straining Kyrgyz-Russian relations and coming on the eve of a high-profile visit by American First Lady Hilary Clinton. Officials claimed that conditions at this home were no worse than those at others in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Why then did the networks not use footage from a Russian children's home? Clearly, Russia was deliberately tarnishing Kyrgyzstan's international reputation. President Akayev called it a "planned" political action and his Deputy Prime Minister denounced the reports as a "prefabricated sensation." Kyrgyzstan sent an official protest to NTV and the Russian government.
Central Asian governments have refused to accredit foreign correspondents who seem too zealous in their reporting. In July 1997 Russian correspondents protested against new accreditation rules issued by the Kazakhstan government, claiming they were unclear and left too much scope for official interpretation. "There is no clear legal limitation on the application of bans," said Russia TV correspondent Andrey Kondrashev. "For instance, either calling for the overthrow of the government or showing on screen some slogan held up by some participant at a meeting can be taken as stirring up inter-ethnic hostility." As Izvestiya correspondent Vladimir Ardayev noted: "If any citizen ... brings an action against me, even without any hope of winning the case, they will already have the right to withdraw my accreditation, because I am being brought to criminal account."
In 1995 correspondents for the Russian newspaper Izvestiya in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan were both accused of activities against the state. After a by-lined report on a protest rally in Ashkhabad, correspondent Vladimir Kuleshov was arrested on charges of conducting "anti-Turkmenistan propaganda" and his bureau closed. Officials said Kuleshov, who had represented Izvestiya in Turkmenistan for years, was not an accredited journalist and that he would be judged as a Turkmen citizen "who lies against his own country." Kuleshov left Turkmenistan after authorities threatened him and his family. The Tajik government
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decided to sue Izvestiya for articles by correspondent Yuri Snegirev accusing former interior minister Yakub Salimov of corruption. The government claimed that by calling Salimov's honor into question, the articles were aimed at destabilizing the country.
The ethics of "honor and dignity"
The ethics of "honor and dignity"
The Salimov case shows that personal honor is often equated with national honor, that criticism of a government official can be regarded as dangerous to national stability. Every Central Asian leader portrays himself as a great national patriarch; consequently, criticizing the president is tantamount to criticizing the nation. Criticism of other countries - or their presidents - occurs, but journalists need to be sensitive to bilateral relations. In 1995 Tajik authorities imposed a fine of $320,000 on Dushanbe's Evening Courier newspaper, forcing it to the brink of closure, for slighting the honor and dignity of Turkmen president Niyazov. "We cannot spoil relations with the Turkmen leader at a time when Turkmenistan is preparing to agree on the delivery of natural gas [to Tajikistan]," an official explained. Central Asian culture places a high value on honor and dignity - on how people, particularly public officials, are regarded in society. All republics provide constitutional protections for the "honor and dignity" of the individual, often reinforced with specific laws and penalties. Although it may be acceptable to criticize a suspect government policy or business deal, criticizing the individuals involved is often unacceptable. Whether or not the story is accurate, negative commentary impugns the honor and dignity of public figures and journalists have been made to pay for their audacity.
The issue is best illustrated by the use of libel law by officials in Kyrgyzstan to punish opponents and discourage criticism. Kyrgyzstan has a better record of press freedom than its Central Asian neighbors, yet it remains one of the few countries in the world where libel is punishable as a criminal rather than a civil offence, with fines and prison sentences up to three years. Although journalists, human rights organizations and even Kyrgyz President Akayev have called for libel to be decriminalized, the campaign has so far been unsuccessful. Parliamentary deputies have consistently voted to keep libel as a criminal offense,
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arguing that "without this provision there would be anarchy ... politicians and public officials would be left unprotected from the lies printed by the media."
Kyrgyzstan's law draws no distinctions between the rights of public figures - elected or appointed officials or others in the public eye - and those of private citizens. Western (particularly American) libel law has developed a higher burden of proof for public figures than for private individuals. The rationale is that public figures have voluntarily put themselves in the public eye and should expect more criticism. Kyrgyzstan's libel law includes penalties for "insulting," which is defined as abasing the "honor and dignity" of a person. What this means is that truth is not a defense; a journalist can prove that a story is factually based and still be successfully prosecuted because the story impugns the "honor and dignity" of the plaintiff.
The most celebrated libel cases in Kyrgyzstan have involved Zamira Sydykova, editor of the opposition weekly Res Publika. In 1995 she and a colleague were found guilty of libeling President Akayev for reporting that he had a house in Turkey and a villa in Switzerland. They were given suspended prison sentences and banned from working as journalists for a year. In 1997 Dastan Sarygulov, head of the state gold mining concern, sued Res Publika for libel; Sydykova and a reporter were sentenced to 18 months in a penal colony and two other journalists were fined. The sentences were condemned in the domestic and foreign press and by human rights groups and Sydykova supporters began a hunger strike. Eventually the sentences were overturned and Sydykova and her colleague released.
The principal issue in this case was the criminal penalty imposed on the defendants, not the question of whether the articles on Sarygulov were libelous. However, in another case also involving a Res Publika journalist, Ryspek Omurzakov, the issue involved standards of proof. In 1997 a factory manager sued Omurzakov for a report about living conditions at his factory workers' hostel; Omurzakov was arrested and held in prison for two months before the case was heard. His article was based on first-hand observations and interviews, including a petition signed by eight employees complaining about sub-standard conditions.
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Two factory workers who testified that the article was accurate were in turn charged with "disseminating deliberately false information" and named as co-defendants. Their testimony vanished from the record. Fearful of losing their jobs, no new workers came to testify on Omurzakov's behalf. Omurzakov was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but released under an amnesty law. Amnesty International accused the authorities of "using criminal legislation in a bogus manner to punish and silence a prominent government critic." In a letter to President Akayev, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) said: "While we recognize the right of individuals to file libel suits to protest their reputations, we deplore the use of such statutes by public officials to shield themselves from public scrutiny." The Omurzakov case shows clearly that truth is not a defense and that officials can use the "honor and dignity" clause to silence critics. "The facts have nothing to do with it," said Omurzakov. "The authorities want to teach independent journalists a lesson in this country, and I'm going to be their latest whipping boy." In Kyrgyzstan a journalist can call an official a crook and prove that the charge is true, but still end up in court for encroaching the person's "honor and dignity."
Controversy over the libel issue continues. In April 1998 deputies voted to sue Kyrgyzstan's most widely-read newspaper, Vecherny Bishkek, for an article featuring a photo of five deputies, in which an interviewee called the parliament a corrupt and Mafia-run organization. The next month one of the deputies in the photo, Omurbek Tekebayev, was back in the news in a Vecherny Bishkek article recounting his illegal efforts to free his brother from prison. "As long as I am a deputy in parliament," said Tekebayev, "libel will not be taken out of the criminal code." His comments carry weight, for Tekebayev is chairman of the Committee on State Structure and Judicial and Legal Reform. "The media use their power irresponsibly," he said. "If I have to choose between freedom of speech and a stable government, I will always choose stability." Tekebayev drafted a bill under which government officials have the right to demand the retraction of articles they find objectionable and unlimited space to write their own rebuttals.
A major obstacle to the development of independent, ethical journalism in Central Asia is the fairly widespread practice of selling news. Some newspapers and broadcast stations, faced with declining government subsidies or competing for scarce advertising revenue, have come to regard "news" as simply another commodity, to be bought, sold or bartered. The line between news and advertising has always been blurred. Newspapers contain "hidden advertisements" for businesses, organizations and individuals, while TV stations run sponsored programs masquerading as news. There have also been occasional cases of editorial blackmail, in which a newspaper threatens to publish a critical or unflattering story on an individual or institution; the only way to avoid publication is to buy a (presumably flattering) advertisement. Journalists, struggling to survive on starvation wages, have openly accepted payments for stories. Such admissions may surprise Western observers, but most journalists in Central Asia, while not condoning payments for stories, take a more pragmatic attitude. Journalists, they say, take bribes not out of greed, but because they earn so little; besides, bribery is endemic in almost every area of Central Asian society.
As a profession in Central Asia, journalism is no longer particularly prestigious or well paid. The best jobs are in the capitals, but even top journalists in Almaty or Tashkent cannot expect to earn more than a few hundred dollars a month; salaries are lower in the smaller capitals - Ashkhabad, Bishkek and Dushanbe. Outside the major cities, pay is appallingly low - under $100 a month in a provincial capital in Kazakhstan, as little as $15-20 a month in southern Kyrgyzstan. Although no doubt there are greedy, unprincipled journalists who would solicit bribes whatever they were paid, most simply take the money to put food on the table and pay the rent. "My colleagues take bribes, even though they know it is not ethical," said one Osh journalist, "but journalists have to make a living." Asanbayeva says that "bribes are rampant" in provincial journalism in Kazakhstan. Some seem relatively minor; for example, parents who pay television crews shooting at a kindergarten to have their children on the screen. Journalists, she says, often receive special treatment from government officials, doctors and others in return for favorable coverage. "It's routine for companies to give journalists
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money for writing about them," she says. "This has always been the case, but today it is even worse, because people are no longer afraid to say they did something for money." Few expect the situation to improve quickly. "For the time being, it's impossible," says another Osh journalist. "Whether we want it or not, the music will be ordered by those who pay."
Local officials have become used to ordering the music. "Politicians believe that because journalists are poorly paid, it's very easy to buy them," notes a correspondent from Vecherny Osh. "They're right about that. If journalists were better paid, there would be no need to be bribed by officials." However, the "ordering" of stories is hardly a post-independence phenomenon; under the Soviet system, officials routinely determined coverage. "A lot of materials were published under order," says Kuttykadam. "For example, if someone was appointed to a new position in the party, you had to write positive information about that person." The economics of ordering news has changed, but not the ordering itself. Khlopovskikh says she is not concerned about a "hidden advertisement" for a business or person. "I do not think this constitutes a bribe," she says. "A bribe is for writing directly against someone." Abdullo Fazylov, an independent journalist from Tajikistan, takes a more cynical view: "Sometimes journalists publish articles for free if they are interested in the subject matter. They will usually publish something with which they do not agree if they get money for it." Journalists offer different opinions on such issues. "Journalism ethics should not be different from any other ethics," says Khlopovskikh. "Ethics is too great to belong to one or another profession." Fazylov puts the question in comparative terms: "Our understanding of ethics could be different from yours. It depends on your culture, your education, and your level of democracy."
Direct payments for stories are less common in television news. However, some stations are prepared to sell time to sponsors and call it news. Station staff do not view the selling of news as an ethical problem because the practice is so common, particularly in smaller cities. In Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan the four television stations (each of which broadcasts only a few hours a week) all boast a "news and information block" in their local programming. However, all the
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"stories" are sponsored - paid for by local factories, businesses and government or non-government organizations. As one staff member put it: "We need a sponsor for every piece we do."
Even at TV stations that distinguish between sponsored programs and news, there are too few incentives to put effort into news gathering and reporting. At some, staff are paid for bringing in and producing commercials and sponsored programming, but receive no pay for doing news. News is offered as a low-cost community service and scant resources are devoted to it. The leading commercial station in southern Kyrgyzstan, Osh TV, broadcasts daily newscasts in Uzbek and Russian, but still employs no full-time journalists. Every employee (except the president and his deputy) sells advertising time and sponsored programs. The company sets a monthly sales target of about US$250, with the employee earning a 10 per cent commission on sales. Osh TV pays its reporters $15-20 a month; the only way to make a reasonable living is to meet the sales target, which raises the monthly wage to about $50. It is hardly surprising that, under pressure to sell time, journalists do not always draw a clear distinction between news and sponsored programs.
The problem is related to station structure and staff organization. Large television stations in Almaty and Tashkent have as many as 150 employees, each of whom has a specialized job. Stations in other major cities average 30 to 50 employees, and jobs are mostly specialized. However, most small TV stations have a staff of 15 or less and some radio stations get by with four or five employees. The small staff is expected to be versatile, with everyone doing a bit of everything - reporting, presenting, selling time, answering the phone, driving the car, keeping the books. This lack of specialization can make an organization more flexible and efficient because one employee is able to perform several job functions. However, when multi-tasking crosses the line between news and advertising it creates a serious conflict of interest. How can a staff member retain journalistic integrity while selling time and making commercials? Can we trust the professionalism of a journalist who also does commercial voice-overs? Stations in larger cities, recognizing this key distinction, have adopted a departmental structure which separates news from advertising, promotion and other commercial functions; camera operators and tape editors do both news and com-
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mercials, but journalists rarely have to. However, the practice persists at smaller stations in provincial regions.
This ethical issue emerged clearly at a 1997 conference of Kyrgyzstan radio and television journalists. Participants discussed a draft ethics code drawn up by a committee composed largely of Bishkek-based journalists (see Annex 3). The most heated debate was over the final article which prohibited journalists from producing or selling advertising. The Bishkek group argued for a strict division of functions; representatives of smaller stations agreed in principle that it was wrong for journalists to sell or make commercials, but said that a ban was not practical because of the small size of their staffs. The article was dropped, although the participants promised to reconsider it at a future conference.
The perils of political sponsorship
The perils of political sponsorship
In Soviet times, the role of the journalist was unambiguous - to serve the party and government, promoting the cause of communism. Journalists were accustomed to taking orders from above. Where there was once a single master, the party, now there are many - the government, political parties and factions, often allied with commercial interests. For many journalists the ethical pressures are greater than ever.
For journalists working in government media little has changed except the government. More than 500 newspapers are published in Uzbekistan - more than three times as many as in Soviet times. However, 328 (70 per cent) are published by national, regional or local authorities, all depend on government subsidies and more than half do not even have their own bank accounts. According to a 1997 survey of 200 newspaper editors, this financial dependence reduced journalistic freedom. Almost all editors were political appointees and only 17 per cent had any formal education in journalism. Nearly 70 per cent said they supported direct government control of the press and guaranteed financial support. The survey concluded that government journalists have little incentive to further their education, improve their skills or work independently: "The truth is that newspapers are controlled by the bureaucrats ... Editors are
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not interested in improving their newspapers, because the financing is already allocated."
Although media in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are nominally more independent, many support a political platform. Although their presidents have recently increased their authority and reduced parliamentary power, these countries have moved further than their neighbors towards multi-party democracy and opposition groups are permitted to operate. However, this has often meant that one political master, the government, has been replaced by another. Parties and wealthy individuals with political ambitions have invested heavily in media to make sure they have a public forum for their views. So-called independent newspapers in Kyrgyzstan have been bought by political figures, says Res Publika editor Sydykova. In Tajikistan, according to Fazylov, "each political faction uses 'word weapons' against the others. Most of our 'independent' newspapers are supported by an individual or a political group. Every newspaper supports a certain point of view."
Many journalists accept political sponsorship as a necessary evil. For a commercial media organization to survive, it needs not only financial but also political support from wealthy, well-connected sponsors. Most major newspapers, television and radio stations are part of larger enterprises, with interests in mining, oil and gas, banking or commerce. Karavan, the best selling newspaper in Central Asia with an official circulation of 250,000, is part of a larger conglomerate which includes KTK, Kazakhstan's most powerful TV network and Radio Karavan; in 1999, this profitable media company was sold to new owners, reportedly with close ties to government officials. President Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, is one of the founders of the NTK network. Piramida, the most successful commercial TV station in Kyrgyzstan, was originally established as a unit within government television and its founders were former state officials. Of the other Bishkek-based stations, VOSST is part of furniture magnate Valeri Khon's industrial empire and Asman was founded by Dastan Sarygulov, president of the state gold mining concern; KOORT, which in 1997 was granted the right to rebroadcast the Russian networks ORT and RTR in Kyrgyzstan and sell local commercials, has close ties to the presidential administration.
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Why are wealthy entrepreneurs interested in putting money into television stations? The stations may turn out to be good investments in the long run, but for now the financial returns are slim. The answer may have more to do with politics than economics. Groups allied with President Nazarbayev had taken control of most major media outlets in Kazakhstan by mid-1998; when the country held its presidential election in January 1999, a year ahead of schedule, the major opposition candidate got little airtime. A similar scenario seems likely in Kyrgyzstan's presidential campaign in 2000. As in the case of Boris Yeltsin's successful re-election campaign in Russia, entrepreneurs in Central Asia recognize that media investments, particularly in TV, can bring political as well as financial returns.
Alliances between stations and political figures exist at the regional and local levels, too. Both parties stand to gain from the arrangement; the politician offers the station protection against interference from agencies such as the tax police or building inspectors; in return, the station provides the politician with a public platform to explain policies or to launch an election campaign. Erkin Ala-Too, one of the two Kyrgyz-language stations in Osh, is closely allied with the city's mayor, for whom it runs thinly disguised sponsored programs. The station's ultimate objective "is to ensure the election of a president from the south," according to its director Nurdin Isakov. "The TV station is a political instrument," he says, "and we are going to continue to cooperate with the local authorities."
The many gears of government power
The many gears of government power
"Let's have freedom first. Then we can talk about ethics." Khlopovskikh's comment aptly sums up the key dilemma for journalists in Central Asia. Ideally, journalists should be able to make ethical choices based on personal or professional standards, free from political, commercial or other pressures, but in this region outside forces constantly define and restrict their freedom of choice and action. In its 1997 survey, CPJ placed four of the five Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - in its "worst offenders" category, citing them for censorship, restrictive legislation and intimidation and harass-
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ment of journalists; Uzbekistan's record on press freedom was called "abysmal." Similar assessments have come from other international human rights and press freedom groups. In 1997, Human Rights Watch-Helsinki, which monitored Uzbek and Russian-language media in Uzbekistan for months, concluded that despite the government's professed commitment to press freedom "state censorship of the media remains pervasive and intimidation of journalists is rampant." Journalists deviating from the rules "have been expelled from their country, fired from their jobs or threatened with dismissal, and on occasion beaten or threatened with violence to them or their families by the security services." The group blamed the government "for creating an atmosphere that is so repressive that journalists often censor themselves before their work ever reaches a formal censor." In 1996 Amnesty International described the political climate in Turkmenistan as "secretive, intimidating and repressive." According to CPJ, Turkmen President Niyazov's "cult-of-personality regime has rigorously suppressed all attempts at independent press coverage, detaining and threatening journalists who tried to cover public protests." More than 40 journalists were killed in Tajikistan's five-year civil war, with at least half the murders committed by paramilitary forces loyal to the regime. According to CPJ, almost all independent Tajik journalists have been driven into exile and citizens who read banned newspapers risk being sent to prison. Journalists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan rarely face such direct threats to their freedom, but governments in both countries have recently moved to restrict criticism and exert indirect pressure on the media. The US government's 1997 annual report on human rights noted "a sharp increase of presidential power to the detriment of other branches of government" in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan "lag even further behind in the development of democracy and respect for human rights." Throughout Central Asia journalists have little ability to exercise ethical choices when basic freedoms are at stake. And, government, as Almaty radio station director Omarova notes, "has many gears it uses."
Even though the Uzbek constitution bans censorship, the State Committee on the Press serves as a de facto censorship body. Newspaper censors, working in government printing houses in Tashkent and provincial centers, review proofs and place a stamp approving them for printing and circulation. At least three censors work at state television and radio (Gostelradio) reviewing material before broadcast. There are no official censors at commercial radio and television stations, but journalists know how far they can go; if in doubt, they clear the story with local officials. The state committee's responsibility is to protect state secrets, but there is no list of such classified information, so censors have wide discretion. According to CPJ, the words dictatorship, opposition, crisis and economic catastrophe are taboo. An editor from Molodezh Uzbekistan was questioned about whether he was making a veiled reference to Russia in an article about the weather with the headline "The Wind is Blowing from the North."
Although there are publications in every major language - from Uzbek and Russian to Korean and Karakalpak - all are subject to censorship and the content tends to be apolitical and supportive of government policies. Business publications act as cheerleaders for the government policies of privatization and the regulation of foreign investment, ignoring deep economic and financial problems and painting a rosy view of Uzbekistan's future. Uzbek authorities claim that the political climate has improved and that the media are becoming more active and diverse, with new independent publications starting up; however, serious opposition papers such as Erk and Mustaqil Haftalik (Independent Weekly) are still banned. The 1997 Human Rights Watch survey of Uzbek media revealed "little substantive critical analysis of domestic affairs and no criticism of government policy, common indicators of free speech." Censorship, direct and indirect, is pervasive, says Khlopovskikh: "Journalists do not write about topical and live issues. They write everything to support the policy of the presidential and governmental initiatives."
More common than official censorship or physical threats are a series of subtle or not so subtle pressures, most of them economic. Such measures have a decidedly chilling effect on media content. Few media organizations have the resources to challenge authorities in court and usually bow to pressure to stay in business. A 1997 Internews report on non-government broadcasting in Kazakhstan noted that every station "has found it necessary to attune itself to the local frequencies of power." This may mean striking a deal with the tax police or officials who control government transmitters, or paying protection money to the Mafia. Stations producing news and information programs must be sensitive to government and commercial interests. "Objectivity and autonomy ... have always been luxuries" for most stations; the "notion of independence in this environment strikes most broadcasters as unrealistic, if not absurd." As one manager put it: "We can't separate ourselves from power."
The most far-reaching example of the exercise of power is the Kazakhstan government's use of radio and television frequencies and licenses to limit private broadcasting. On November 4, 1996, four Almaty-based radio stations and two TV stations were abruptly taken off the air. According to the State Frequency Commission their broadcasts were interfering with air traffic control communications, although airport officials denied any problems. Russian media claimed the shutdown was an attempt to put non-government stations out of business for airing opposition views. In December electric and telephone wires to Radio/TV M in Almaty were cut. The station taped and broadcast a phone call in which a presidential official told its directors: "For two years you have been the mouthpiece of the opposition, and therefore we are closing you down." Officials denied the call had been made and said the station had been closed for technical reasons. Such harassment set the stage for a more systematic assault on independent media with the government announcement that all radio and television stations would have to go off the air on January 1, 1997 and participate in an auction for frequencies.
The tender process represented a clear attempt to use legal and technical means to stifle opposition media. Private TV stations using widely-
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viewed VHF channels were forced off the air and VHF frequencies allocated exclusively for government use; those that managed to stay on were forced to make deals with local government authorities. Independent broadcasters were allowed to bid only for UHF channels, which require a special aerial and reach a much smaller audience. The minimum bid for a UHF frequency (of 0 to 1,000 watts power) was set at the exorbitant figure of $114,285 - way beyond the means of any but the wealthiest companies. Radio frequency bids were to begin at $30,857 - again, a high price. The results of the auction process drastically altered the media landscape of Kazakhstan. Although the government said its purpose was to create competition for the frequency spectrum, a scarce natural resource, many frequencies were not allocated at all, even when there were bidders; in most cities, several frequencies (including those on the VHF band) were left and remain unoccupied. When the tender process began in January 1997, 48 independent TV stations were in operation; a year later 20 had closed because they lost a bid, could not afford to participate in the tender or were not allowed to. Casualties included strong local stations such as Alau in Kustanai, which produced daily news in Russian and Kazakh and had advertising contracts with multinational companies. After the station was taken off the air, Kustanai residents organized a petition drive, collecting 22,000 signatures in four days - the most highly organized public protest against a station closure in the country. But it had no effect; Alau's manager was told the station could go back on the air only if it ceded control to the local government. Of the 28 TV stations that remained open, two were taken over by local governments and the rest had to compromise their independence to continue to operate. As local TV station director Evgenii Zavataskii of TKT (Temirtau) put it, "Those that continue to operate after the tender have made an agreement with the government. Those that won a permit have always worked with the government." Stations do not have the right to know why bids were rejected, and the Frequency Commission has reserved the right to reallocate a frequency at any time to a competitor that offers more money. Many feel not only overpowered, but outwitted. "The problem is that we [private broadcasters]are playing checkers, and all of a sudden we discover that the government is playing chess," says Rozlana Taukina, director of the Association of Independent Electronic Media of Central Asia.
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The winners in the tender process, apart from the government, were two Almaty-based stations, KTK and NTK. Both were granted not only local frequency permits, replacing two existing private stations, but the right to set up national channels by broadcasting on local VHF frequencies in other cities. This decision is the most blatant example of political bias. Licenses were awarded even though neither station submitted a bid; NTK is closely tied to government figures. Outside Almaty, the government closed 13 stations to allow KTK and NTK to broadcast on VHF, even though several VHF frequencies remain unused. The Frequency Commission had cited the lack of information in some regions as one criterion for granting frequencies. Ten of the stations taken off the air produced regular local newscasts.
The local limits of freedom
The local limits of freedom
Although most attention is given to attempts to control media at the national level, the many gears of power have just as much impact at the local level, where media organizations and journalists need to maintain friendly relations with the officially appointed mayor or governor, local officials and agencies such as the tax police. Many officials, brought up in a tradition of bureaucratic secrecy, are often unwilling to release information, even if required to do so by law. "The laws are OK," says Khlopovskikh, "but they don't change officials' mindsets. On the books, information is freely available, but not in reality." She believes that cultural factors make small town media susceptible to influence. "Respect for elders is very developed in small towns, and local journalists are more dependent on authorities. It's easier to take reprisals against them or restrict them." Asanbayeva agrees: "In small towns, everyone knows everyone. Personal relations regulate many things. This makes it harder for a journalist in a small town to be truly professional." All local journalists rely on the authorities in some way. Those working for government media are fully dependent - for their jobs and salaries - but even nongovernmental journalists seek the favors that government can dispense such as apartments in good neighborhoods, therefore creating a culture of dependency.
In most provincial centers, the mayor or governor openly or covertly
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exerts influence upon media. In Aktau, an oil town on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea coast, the local TV station, realizing it could not win in the tender process, struck a deal under which the local administration was granted the VHF frequency and the station provides programming including news four times a week. "Much depends on the akim [governor]," says its director, Sergey Martin. "A frequency permit means nothing if they want to close you down." In Aktiubinsk, a city of 250,000 in northeastern Kazakhstan, the mayor has asked RIKA-TV not to cover specific stories, such as demonstrations by pensioners and communists. The penalties for independence are well illustrated by the experience of IKAR-TV in Karaganda, a large industrial city in central Kazakhstan. The station, founded in 1992, built a strong reputation for its local news coverage, but it came into conflict with local authorities over stories about the privatization of utilities, and the resulting shortages and price increases. The family and friends of the mayor were believed to have profited from the privatization; after one segment reporting a price hike, officials called and said, "get rid of your news programming, or we'll close your station." One reporter was threatened physically, and his relatives warned they could lose their jobs. In the 1997 tender, IKAR's VHF frequency was given to the city administration, which took the station under its control; a tamer IKAR reopened with a smaller staff, less equipment and without news or information programs. Television stations in provincial Kazakhstan report the need to pay bribes on a regular basis, both to local and regional government officials and to Mafia-type interests. Bribes to government officials vary greatly, but have been reported as high as 100,000 tenge ($1,300) a month. Some stations report that government pay-offs tend to be costly and insecure, while Mafia groups often accept barter.
In Uzbekistan's more hostile environment, government action can be even more direct. In Urgench in 1995, police raided Babajanov's TV station, breaking down the door and confiscating equipment. The station had been careful to avoid programs which could offend the local authorities, but Babajanov had ties to opposition groups. "The government considered us dangerous," he said. A court ordered the police to give back the equipment, but almost everything returned was broken beyond repair, including the transmitter. Babajanov did not seek restitution. "We were afraid. We already had a little victory, and in
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political terms, we had won. But in economic terms, we had gone belly up."
Even when licenses and frequencies are not at stake, government authorities exert influence through their control of broadcast transmitters. Officials may refuse to lease time, change broadcast hours or raise prices at will. It is difficult to document how widespread this practice is and how much it stems from official attempts to suppress criticism or simply from the corruption of underpaid state employees. However, some examples will suffice. Mars, a small TV station in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan, was taken off the air for three days after airing an interview with a factory manager who criticized the new oblast (provincial) governor. An example of more systematic pressure is the case of Kyrgyz-Jer, which rented two prime-time hours a week to broadcast nationally on Kyrgyz State Television. The station ran afoul of the authorities for its political discussion programs, in particular for an interview with an opposition candidate in the 1995 presidential election. Fire and building inspectors cited the station for alleged violations, and visits from the tax police became more frequent. State television kept changing Kyrgyz-Jer's broadcast time, making it difficult for the company to build up an audience. But what eventually forced the company off the air was the cost of broadcast time - up from 300 som an hour in 1993 to 25,000 som two years later. The charge was clearly punitive. After a brief attempt to broadcast on another channel, Kyrgyz-Jer was forced to shut down.
Government pressure on print media
Government pressure on print media
Governments try to exert similar influence over print media through licensing and control of technical facilities. Central Asia has few commercial publishing houses, so all government and most private newspapers are printed on government presses. Under instructions from officials, the plant may refuse to print a newspaper (or a specific edition), reduce a print run (usually claiming a shortage of newsprint) or arbitrarily increase printing costs. Most independent newspapers have experienced this kind of economic harassment at some point. The
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message is clear - toe the line (or at least tone down criticism) if you want to stay in business.
All major newspapers in Bishkek are printed at Uchkun, the government publishing house. In 1994, the presidential administration stopped the printing of the parliamentary newspaper Svobodniye Gory and the independent weekly newspaper Politika, both of which had been critical of the regime. The pattern of quasi-legal harassment has continued. Uchkun refused to print an October 1996 edition of the opposition weekly Res Publika, claiming the newspaper owed about $800; however, the government daily newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana continued to be printed, despite an outstanding debt of about $30,000. In January 1997, the Ministry of Justice ordered Uchkun to stop printing the newspaper Kattama, following a claim by a deputy that it was publishing pornography. Later that month, the ministry stopped the presses on the second edition of a new newspaper, Kriminal, which had reported allegations that the Prime Minister had given illegal tax breaks to companies where his relatives worked, and that government positions had been given to relatives of President Akayev and his wife. Neither politician brought suit against Kriminal, but the ministry pursued the case. The defense claimed that it was not the job of the ministry to defend individual reputations, but the judges upheld the closure decision. The defense lawyer said that the judges and officials were acting under orders "from the higher echelons of power."
Government action against newspapers in Central Asia seems to follow a set pattern. A government agency orders the printing house not to publish a newspaper on the grounds that it has broken the law. The newspaper's only legal recourse is to the courts, but bringing a case to trial is expensive and time-consuming; meanwhile, the newspaper remains closed, with no income from advertising. If the case goes to court, the newspaper's chances of winning are slim because judges are appointed and paid by the government, and are easily influenced by officials. In a 1996 public opinion poll in Kyrgyzstan, 63 per cent expressed no confidence in the courts and 61 per cent no confidence in the public prosecutor. On a sensitive issue such as press criticism of the government, it is hardly surprising that the courts follow the government's bidding.
In a region with deep and continuing economic problems and an often hostile political environment, some journalists consider ethics a Western luxury, essentially irrelevant to the daily practice of journalism in Central Asia. Why bother discussing the ethical limits of investigative reporting in a country where journalists have been killed, imprisoned or intimidated for probing too deeply? What is the purpose of condemning "hidden advertisements" or sponsored programs if newspapers and TV stations need the income to survive? Even well-educated, serious journalists who are deeply concerned about abuses in the profession argue that ethical debate is of limited value until the media become financially and politically more independent - until advertising revenue increases, and governments ease direct and indirect pressure on journalists.
Efforts by international agencies and donors to bring Central Asian journalists together to discuss ethical issues have met with limited success. Few organized forums exist for discussions on any media issues, largely because professional associations are weak, underfunded and sometimes paralyzed by personal rivalries. The old Soviet-era unions of journalists still exist, but their membership has declined and independent journalists view them as too closely tied to the government; meanwhile, new professional associations have been slow to develop. Ethics courses are beginning to appear in the curricula of university journalism departments, but relatively few working journalists (at least those outside the major centers) have a relevant university education. This is not to imply that journalists do not care about setting ethical standards for the profession. Many realize that inaccuracy, sensationalism, corrupt practices and political ideology have contributed to low public confidence in the press, and that journalistic excesses provide politicians with a justification to further restrict press freedom. But it has been difficult to bring journalists together to discuss these issues, let alone to forge agreements.
Consequently, most journalism ethics codes have been drafted, circulated and formally endorsed by government media or government-sponsored journalists' unions, and are often viewed by independent journalists as one more gear of government control. In Kyrgyzstan,
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Vecherny Bishkek refused to sign the 1997 ethics code (Annex 1) published in government newspapers; the deputy editor said he did not disagree with the content of the code, but did not want to be pressured or be "on the same list with some of the signers." In general, these codes restate general principles from state constitutions and media laws -- respect for the honor and dignity of individuals and groups and tolerance for differences in race, gender and national origin, the promotion of economic and social development and the process of democratization. Although these codes attempt to promote good journalistic practices, they fail to identify and censure the most common abuses in the profession -- payment for stories, accepting free gifts and trips, conflict of interest (personal or financial), and work in advertising.
The other key issue is enforcement. How will the profession act on complaints about unethical coverage, and what sanctions can it take against those who break the rules? The codes are simply statements of principles; none provides a mechanism, such as a press council, for adjudicating complaints or setting penalties for offenders. Until journalists in Central Asia agree to set ethical standards and take action against those who break them, ethics codes will have little impact. Pro-forma endorsements of the Kazakhstan Code on Ethnic Relations (Annex 2) mean little, says Asanbayeva. "Kazakh journalists still reflect the popular attitude that 'all this is the Russians' fault,' and Russians that 'Kazakhs are lazy and incompetent.'" But at least there is a code, ineffective though it may be. Indeed, the fact that journalists in Central Asia are discussing ethical issues is a step forward; a few years ago, ethics codes were simply not an issue for most people in the profession.
PROFESSIONAL ETHICS CODE OF JOURNALISTS OF THE KYRGYZ REPUBLIC
Adopted in June 1997 by the editors of all government newspapers, the president of state radio and television and the editors of some nongovernmental newspapers.
TAKING INTO ACCOUNT that freedom of speech is a fundamental right of an individual;
ADMITTING the Declaration of Human Rights, article 19, declaring the right of an individual to seek, obtain and disseminate information;
BEING GUIDED by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, article 16, and the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on Mass Media, which state that every individual has a right to free expression and dissemination of ideas and opinions, to freedom of printing, broadcasting and dissemination of information, censorship, disclosure of state and commercial secrets, calls for the violent overthrow or change of the existing constitutional system, violation of sovereignty and encroachment upon the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic or any other state; propaganda for war and violence, national or religious superiority, and intolerance towards other nations; and dissemination of pornography are prohibited;
EMPHASIZING the important role of information in implementing human rights and freedoms, building a civil society in a democratic and lawful state:
RECOGNIZING the responsibility for maintaining national security and mutual understanding, social and political stability in the Republic before the people of Kyrgyzstan;
WE SIGN this Code and declare our willingness and readiness to observe the following principles:
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* to respect the honor and dignity of an individual, rights and freedoms, regardless of nationality, race or sex;
* not to use information to persecute unpopular persons and to settle personal accounts;
* to be guided, above all, by the interests of a person, the presumption of innocence and the fact that only a court is authorized to charge a person;
* not to interfere with the private life of a person unless the action seeks to protect the interests of society, and the rights and lawful interests of citizens;
* not to disseminate false information and rumors undermining the reputation of an individual or discrediting his honor;
* to care for the prestige of the profession, respect the honor and dignity of colleagues, and promote a balance between fair competition and professional solidarity;
* to present reality through actual and detailed information, to operate using facts which can be verified;
* to promote the process of democratization of society, and consolidation of the peoples of the Kyrgyz Republic represented by different nationalities, while implementing economic and social reforms in the country.
CODE OF ETHICS FOR JOURNALISTS IN ADDRESSING ETHNIC RELATIONS IN THE REPUBLIC OF KAZAKHSTAN
The code was published in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, a government newspaper with a circulation of over 40,000, on June 7, 1997. It was endorsed by 36 other government and nongovernmental newspapers, and six broadcast stations:
TAKING INTO ACCOUNT that freedom of speech is a fundamental right of man, and considering Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the right to seek, obtain and distribute information, and following from Article 20 of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in which it is declared that freedom of speech and freedom to obtain and distribute information by any nonprohibited means is guaranteed, censorship is forbidden. Propaganda and agitation for changing the constitutional order by force, violations of the integrity of the Republic, undermining the security of the state, war, social and racial, national, religious, class and ancestral superiority, and factions supporting cruelty and violence are not permitted.
EMPHASIZING the important role of information in implementing human rights and freedoms, building a civil society in a democratic and lawful state:
CONSIDERING that the multi-ethnic population of Kazakhstan has been formed over several decades, organically absorbing into itself the complete spectrum of people, languages, religions, customs and traditions:
BEING CONSCIOUS of the responsibility for preserving and strengthening inter-ethnic peace, we subscribe to the following code, and declare our desire to observe the following principles:
* Consolidating the multi-ethnic people of Kazakhstan as a society whose citizens are equal in their rights;
* Respecting human rights and freedoms regardless of ethnicity;
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* Creating an atmosphere of friendship, peace and accord;
* Respecting the dignity of each individual;
* Abstaining from any form of instigation which incites inter-ethnic violence, hatred and discrimination;
* Preventing political, ideological passions and propaganda which kindle racial and ethnic hostility;
* Assisting in the formation of civil responsibility, state identity and Kazakhstani patriotism;
* Putting the interests of the people of Kazakhstan in first place;
* Promoting mutual respect and trust among the various ethnic groups of the Republic;
* Strengthening the long-standing traditions of inter-ethnic accord in Kazakhstan.
PROFESSIONAL CODE OF ETHICS OF TELEVISION AND RADIO JOURNALISTS OF KYRGYZ REPUBLIC
Adopted by the Association of Independent Electronic Mass Media of Central Asia at its conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, September 8-9, 1997.
1. Television and radio journalists should distribute and comment on only that information which has been confirmed as true and which comes from a reliable source. Journalists should avoid concealing information which is important to the public and distributing wittingly false information. Television and radio journalists should avoid using offensive language that may physically or mentally hurt people.
2. While fulfilling their professional responsibilities, journalists may use all means to obtain information. However, they should respect the rights of physical and juridical persons not to give information (or to refuse to be videotaped) and not to answer questions, except in those cases where the duty to provide information is stipulated by the law on mass media.
3. Television and radio journalists must make a clear distinction between facts and opinion, but at the same time they should not be neutral.
4. Television and radio journalists have no right to cover the details of the personal life of an individual without his or her permission.
5. The religious beliefs of journalists should not influence the objectivity of television and radio news stories.
6. Journalists must respect the rights of others to freedom of choice in religion, must not discriminate on the basis of religious beliefs, and must not criticize religions, religious denominations or groups, except in cases where religious issues cause conflicts in society.
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7. Television and radio journalists must provide accurate and balanced information because objectivity is the main goal of the journalist. All mistakes should be corrected immediately and completely.
8. Journalists should serve no other interest except the right of the public to be informed. Journalists should not accept any gifts or favors which could influence the objectivity of their stories.
9. Plagiarism is prohibited. Journalists should observe copyright.
10. Television and radio journalists should maintain solidarity to protect colleagues from persecution for criticism.
© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2000