Comment: Central Asian states bully their media

>> A 12-year prison sentence for a journalist in Tajikistan is disgusting and indicative of the contempt that the region holds free media in, writes James Kilner

EDINBURGH, July 13 (The Conway Bulletin) — A court in the north Tajik town of Khujand sent the journalist and comedian Khairullo Mirsaidov to prison for 12 years on Wednesday. His crime for a jail sentence that some Western countries would hand out to a murderer or a rapist? He had angered local officials by complaining to central government about their corruption and bribe-taking.

Of course, officially, Mirsaidov was sent to prison for making false allegations against the local officials, defamation and the misuse of state funds. But these charges are ugly figleaves for the real motivations behind the case which have their foundations in vindictive deceit and bullying.

Good reporting and holding power to account are vital cornerstones for all societies but forget international correspondents covering Central Asia, we have it comparably easy, no matter what stories we like to recount. The real heroes of Central Asia’s media scene are the local journalists striving under great pressures and dangers to report on events and their importance.

And, as the sordid case of Mirsaidov highlights, it is as dangerous as ever to talk truth to power in Central Asia. Journalists are being imprisoned in every country in the region, normally on trumped-up charges. And if the charges don’t directly lead to prison, they lead to fines that are impossible to pay which then trigger the prison sentence that the authorities want.

Often the authorities don’t even bother with that and instead fall back on hired heavies to rough up journalists who have become an irritant. In Kazakhstan, a local journalist I know told me how menacing plain-clothed policemen had visited his elderly parents in the middle of the night to warn them to apply pressure to their son to stop his work. His parents were terrified.

Governments in Central Asia, to varying degrees, hire PR machines and lobbyists to tart up their images in the West and to make them more palatable. They need the West’s cash, although this has been reduced by China’s rise, and they crave the kudos of Western acceptance. I’ve been privy to conversations with some Western businessmen and diplomats, only a handful but still some, who are willing to go along with this heavily spun alternative reality.

The Mirsaidov case is a reminder that the dark underbelly of the region, the reactive core, is still very much anti-free speech and anti-human rights.


>> James Kilner is a former Reuters and Telegraph correspondent. He now edits the Conway Bulletin.

>> This comment piece was first published in issue 378 of The Conway Bulletin, a weekly newspaper covering Central Asia and the South Caucasus

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