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Media watch and journalism rights organisations as advocates of press freedom in post-Soviet Central Asia.

In the bleak press rights territory of post-Soviet Central Asia, domestic and international nong-overnmental organisations, foreign governments, news outlets, and multinational entities such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and UNESCO monitor constraints on the press. They also protest censorship and decry journalists' arrests, prosecutions, harassment, and murders.

Today, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remain alarmingly draconian with regard to censorship and "soft" repression, or self-censorship, of journalists, while retaining tight control of mass media outlets. Repression is a cynical reality in that all five constitutions explicitly promise protection of press freedom. While their press systems are not monolithic or identical--for example, they vary in the proportion of non-state media outlets, existence of official censorship bodies, and journalist salaries--there are key commonalities that enable scholars and policymakers to look at the media environment on a regional, as well as country-to-country level. These controls impede the formation of press systems that may lead to better governance, reduce corruption, and encourage dissemination and critique of news and information that potentially contributes to expansion of human rights and national development (Price, 2011; Shafer & Freedman, 2009). Although it is too early to assess any significant expansion of journalists' rights in Kyrgyzstan, it is--on a comparative basis within the region--best positioned to travel the road to liberalisation after its second grassroots-driven change of governments and its transformation in 2010 from a presidential to parliamentary system.

This article begins with a discussion of the press before 1991 and the professional foundations that conceptualised the Soviet press as a tool to build the state and further Communist revolutionary goals. Those foundations mutated into the concept of the post-Soviet press as a tool to build independent states, mold national identities, and aggrandise and entrench ruling elites. These regimes have generally proven hostile to other key civil society elements, such as multiple parties, political rights, rights to free speech and religious practice, aggressive opposition to corruption, freedom of association, government transparency, and free and fair elections.

Most post-independence presidents in Central Asia since 1991 were formerly Communist Party leaders, educated and trained under the Soviet system. That status helps explain the difficulties that prevent current press systems from evolving into robust, independent, watchdogs of democracy that journalists and civil society proponents advocate as most effective in developed and democratic nations.

Democratic press promoters hailed the break-up of the Soviet as a huge blow to 19th Century colonialism and to the further subjugation of Central Asians and Eurasians by European Russians. In many ways, these newly independent countries did succeed at nation-building. Fairbanks says the regimes assumed the major role once held by the central government in Moscow, including: directing most of the economy, selecting officials, setting foreign policy, and controlling military and intelligence services. Many citizens are suspicious of authority, he writes, and "in the absence of efforts to organise and mobilise society, or to disguise the nature of rule, there is a yawning chasm between the rulers and the ruled" (Fairbanks, 2001).

Considering these historical implications and present situations, both traditional and new "journalists" and media outlets are subject to strict government controls, while the rapid spread of new communication technologies makes it harder to fully control information. Expanded Internet access and the growing use of social media make it easier for more citizens to find news, information, and viewpoints outside regime controls. However, that broadens the pool of at-risk professional and nonprofessional "communicators"--often bloggers or webmasters--and emboldens governments to extend the types of legal and regulatory constraints already imposed on traditional print and broadcast media. That, in turn, complicates the work of media advocacy, defender, and development organisations.

Thus, this article examines how four US-based press rights defender and media development NGOs regard their mission, purpose, and operational and funding tactics, as well as their ability to influence public policy and public opinion in the West and Central Asia. This exploratory piece of scholarship contributes to an understanding of roles of International media development and press-defender non-governmental organisations in the context of the evolution of press policies and practices in these countries. It categorises such NGOs into three broad categories based on their stated principal missions: active advocacy and defense of press rights; information gathering and dissemination; and frequent reporting of news about press rights--such as recent articles about the murder of a Kyrgyz journalist in Kazakhstan and the impact of a Tajikistan security sweep on the press. This article incorporates interviews with representatives of four US-based international media watchdog groups:, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Freedom House, and International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX).

Failure to Build Free Press Systems in Central Asia

With the end of the Soviet Union and conclusion of the Cold War occurring in the early 1990s, the West saw opportunities to promote democratic press systems in the newly independent nations of Central Asia. Underpinning those opportunities was a belief that a "free" press is essential to the kind of nation-building and civil society dynamics that lead to political stability, economic growth, and security against the Islamic fundamentalism the West fears. Consistent with prior research (Shafer & Freedman, 2009), this article presumes that press freedom cannot exist in a vacuum and is one of several essential elements of civil society.

However, the countries in Central Asia have demonstrated little success in building and sustaining free, market-oriented press systems despite massive infusions of development resources and expertise from foreign governments, NGOs, and foundations. Major funders of democratic press system development have included the U.S. Department of State; Reuters; Soros Foundation; the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars; British Broadcasting Corporation; OSCE; IREX; Freedom House; Internews; and the International Center for Journalists. Some organisations, such as CPJ, Amnesty International, International PEN, Reporters without Borders (RWB), and Human Rights Watch, do not engage directly in journalism trainings but advocate for protection and expansion of democratic media. This study looks at four such organisations as part of what should become a comprehensive assessment of why more than two decades of efforts to encourage free and effective press systems have not come to fruition in Central Asia.

These regimes, for the most part, remain repressitarian, "meaning both authoritarian in governance and repressive in human rights practices" (Freedman, Shafer, & Antonova, 2011). They impose a high level of direct or indirect media censorship and content control, including prohibitive libel laws, unjust arrests of journalists, media tax audits, canceled publishing and broadcast licenses, and pressure on advertisers and printing houses when media content is unfavourable toward the government. Still at times, most of the regimes have recognised some advantages to modernising media content and permitting journalists to acquire Western professional skills and reporting styles--even while ensuring that trainees can't fully put such skills into practice by reporting in negative or critical ways about the governments under which they serve. Another reason some allowed Western journalism educators into tightly regulated newsrooms and universities is that donor nations and international funders can apply pressure to democratise the press systems. Such pressure is usually exerted indirectly through the kind of media watch websites, reports, and NGOs this article discusses. Finally, the regimes may realise the need for a modicum of sophistication and professionalism in regard to the production of the propaganda they disseminate. That includes acknowledging that propagandists on government retainer must use contemporary journalistic techniques an technologies to convincingly spin policies, pronouncements, and dictates, in an effort to avoid being ridiculed for the kind of crude and counterproductive propaganda associated with the most extreme totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea, Cuba, and Miramar.

Overview of the Soviet Press System in Central Asia, 1920 to 1990

Well before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries envisioned an activist/interventionist role for the press, considering it a catalyst for revolution and an engine for party solidarity. When the revolution succeeded, the party used the press to support the newborn regime and counterbalance the bourgeois press (Tolstikova, 2004).

Although the Soviet press was clearly an apparatus of the government, Mueller (1998) argues it was more than a propaganda instrument, although that was its primary function. She says the press also performed important non-ideological functions of traditional newsgathering and dissemination of information. It was charged with educating the masses and investigating and shedding light on corruption and nepotism in new state and party bureaucracies. Journalists did not regard themselves as propagandists but rather as professionals committed ideologically to the party and to building the new state.

Mueller's (1998) recitation of early Soviet press history documents continuous conflict. On one side were governmental expectations that journalists conform to the party line and serve as propagandists. On the other was the fact that skilled journalists were least likely to be reduced to such a role. Throughout the 1920s, major newspapers employed many staff members who were not party members and came from privileged and intellectual backgrounds. Meanwhile through that decade, the Soviets tried to formalise socialist journalism education and empower a cadre of journalists from the working and peasant classes while barring or purging members of the bourgeois and intelligentsia classes.

Although Soviet newsgathering and dissemination conventions were often extreme from a Western perspective, they may have had worth in forming an interventionist model along the lines of civic journalism today (Shafer & Freedman, 2007). Community-level journalists were charged with heading and praising campaigns to investigate corruption, uncover industrial inefficiencies, and energise farm and industrial workers to increase production and fill quotas. If the subsequent economic development of the Soviet Union and its emergence as a world power are valid indicators, then such press policies arguably had merit.

Hopkins (1970) sees a fundamental conflict between the two roles of the Soviet press from the American point of view. He stresses how American press theory holds that journalists are obliged to stand between citizens and their government--serving in a "watchdog" function. From that perspective, Hopkins calls it hypocritical for Soviet journalists to speak of their commitment to the people while endlessly disseminating government statements and interpretations of events with little or no candid critical analysis of their own.

Yet controls on professional journalists were not total, although deeply enmeshed into the central planning process as government agents for planned social change and nation-building. Such a journalistic role conflicts with the Western-based international professional ethic that journalists should strive for objectivity as observers and recorders of events; they are expected to cast aside ideologies and political biases in favour of fair, balanced, and accurate reporting.

The structures of the Soviet system and its underlying communist ideology have been formally dismantled since 1991 but not obliterated in Central Asia. Aspects of that system--especially interpretive and persuasive news reporting practices that are not wholly committed to fact -survive and were adapted to supporting the independent governments, repressing dissent, and promoting nation-building (Muminova, 2002) an approach resting on often-exaggerated interpretations of history, traditions, and national heroes. It provides a rationale and methodology for journalists to be opinionated and interpretive in news stories if their opinions and interpretations do not deviate from the national ideology created by the regimes.

Contemporary Constraints in Central Asia

No democratic or pluralistic substitutes for the Soviet press model have arisen in Central Asia, let alone a substitute that effectively furthers the processes of modernisation and democratisation. This lack of change largely is due to the perpetuation of authoritarianism by regimes more committed to self-survival and self-aggrandisement than to effectively guiding and encouraging the press to advance economic and social development and participatory governance. This situation is not uncommon among post-colonial nations, where it is challenging to ease constraints on the press, relax de facto or de jure censorship, and find ways to effectively use the press as a means toward national development.

Researchers and policymakers have sought to experiment with swift and often draconian measures to move underdevelopedsocieties to what they consider modernity and development, and from relative poverty to relative affluence. In doing so, they have not adequately addressed the problem of the relationship of mass communication and national development as the relationship interacts with social institutions and complex social forces. In essence, they have wasted their press systems as potentially effective and formidable tools for modernisation and nation building based on empowerment and broad citizen participation. In exchange, they mandated weak and acquiescent press systems used primarily to maintain dictatorships and enrich a narrow, politically complacent, fawning elite that sees its interests as best served by denying the public of the kind of information and free exchange of ideas that a free and robust press system facilitates.

All five regimes impose harsh enough constraints on their media to justify international criticism and to warrant their "not free" ratings from Freedom House (2010). Quantitative assessments in the IREX Media Sustainability Index (2011) reinforce findings of lack of press freedom in the region. Qualitative reviews, such as those of the U.S. Department of State and event-driven reports by such press rights advocacy entities as CPJ and RWB, produce similar conclusions.

Media assessment and human rights NGOs extensively publicise such ratings. However, Central Asian regimes may publicly minimise them or contest their accuracy. For example, in May 2011, shortly after the release of the annual U.S. State Department human rights reports and annual assessments by Freedom House and IREX, Tajikistan's ambassador to the United States acknowledged to a U.S. university audience that his country's media situation is a "subject of very big criticism in Western countries" (Shirinov, 2011). He said only a few of the country's approximately 87 media companies are state-owned, that the media is free to report what it wishes, and that all Cabinet ministers must meet with journalists at least once every three months and "answer all the questions that they ask." Journalists are sued only when there are not enough "good proofs" to support their stories, the ambassador said. "Journalists have to learn how to tell the truth and government has to learn not to react to reports in the mass media" (Shirinov, 2011). Similarly, the media advisor to Tajikistan's president told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that his government rejected Freedom House's "not free" rating, asserting that independent media outlets outnumber official ones and are allowed to criticise the government. The advisor's statement coincided with a World Press Freedom Day ceremony in which a journalists' organisation in that country awarded a special "journalistic bravery" prize to a newspaper editor-in-chief who was hospitalised earlier in the year after an assault by unidentified attackers (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2011). These examples bear witness to the conflicting nature of press freedom reports and the statements about those reports by members of the respective Central Asian countries' governments.

Laws Versus Practice

Governmental and extra-governmental conduct that suppresses the practice of journalism and the open flow of news and information conflicts with nominal guarantees of press freedom in the national constitutions. To illustrate, Article 20 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan (2007) states: "The freedom of speech and creative activities shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be prohibited. 1. Everyone shall have the right to freely receive and disseminate information by any means not prohibited by law." It includes this caveat, however: "2. Propaganda of or agitation for the forcible change of the constitutional system, violation of the integrity of the Republic, undermining of state security, and advocating war, social, racial, national, religious, class and clannish superiority as well as the cult of cruelty and violence shall not be allowed." Richter (2011) observes that "the presence or absence of a particular law is no guarantee of media freedom ... However, the very existence (or otherwise) of legal criteria approved by parliament means there are defined and long-term rules of conduct, and it is easier for the media to live with these than in a situation where the rules change daily at the discretion of officials who are unrestrained by law and therefore beyond control". That said, the authors note that at least in countries with a strongly dominant ruling political party--or only one legal party parliamentarians and administrative officials do the regime's bidding regardless of nominal "legal criteria."

Repression evident throughout the region in 2010 remains largely unchanged from prior years. A CPJ representative unsuccessfully tried to visit an imprisoned journalist in Kazakhstan and to evaluate any changes in the level of press freedom during the country's year of OSCE leadership. In an interview with the authors on 11 March, 2011, Nina Ognianova reported, "I was expecting that would be at least some changes, but what I got from my interviews was that the situation was just constantly bad, and it was constantly bad for ten years."

Anti-press incidents still occurred even in Kyrgyzstan, where the authoritarian president was ousted in April 201 0 and where voters later approved a constitutional change from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. Prior to the change of government, media watchdog human rights groups highlighted incidents in which unknown attackers harassed journalists associated with opposition media. CPJ reported that two ethnic-Uzbek RFE/RL journalists received threats that forced them to stop working and leave the area temporarily; stories by those journalists about violence between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz differed from reports from most domestic media outlets. The U.S. State Department (2011) said the new government of Kyrgyzstan "took steps toward ensuring" respect for press rights, but noted "some continued reports of intimidation of journalists and self-censorship, particularly in the south."

Furthermore, began a 2011 World Press Freedom Day story this way: "Recent developments in Kyrgyzstan are displaying the dark side of a free press." It continued, ".a few journalists have made commendable efforts to fulfill the traditional watchdog function of a free press. But such bright spots are being marred by a rise in chauvinistic and racist rhetoric in the Kyrgyz-language press, along with recent violent attacks against journalists" (Khamidov, 2011). CPJ said new President Roza Otunbayeva "talks all the right talk about the importance of democracy and the rule of law, but de facto, what's happening with the press. right now, particularly in the south, is despicable" (Ogianova, 2011). In an interview with the authors on 11 March, 2011 Ognianova s aid television stations were destroyed, ethnic Uzbek television journalists were evicted, and the main television station was forcibly sold to an ethnic Kyrgyz. The organisation wrote a strong letter after Otunbayeva took office "laying out our concerns about the farcical trial of a journalist" who received a life sentence (CPJ, 2010, 14 September). The protest letter decried the "politicised prosecution" of Ulugbek Abdusalomov" in retaliation for his reporting about ethnic bias and human rights violations" and asked Otunbayeva to intervene "in view of your publicly stated commitments to press freedom and human rights." Ognianova said the president did not respond to CPJ.

Emerging Constraints on New Media

Internet and social media as well as press freedom and free speech controversies are rapidly extending beyond traditional print and broadcast media as repressitarian regimes labour to block avenues for political expression, political dissent, political organisation, and political advocacy. RWB (2011, March) ranks Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan among the world's top-ten enemies of the Internet. The most recent U.S. Department of State country reports (2011) reflect the extension of constraints on new media. This trend is of particular concern in light of the Internet's potential as an alternative supplier of a plurality of news sources (Freedman, Shafer, & Antonova, 2010), albeit mostly without the mediating influence of professional news judgment. To illustrate, a Kazakhstan official advised a correspondent for Internet portal Stan. TV against covering a protest rally and threatened her with arrest; after the correspondent published the allegations, the official threatened a defamation suit. Kyrgyzstan authorities temporarily closed access to independent Internet news sites and print media during several days of violence in Bishkek, the capital.

Several Central Asian contributors to Internet-based publications were in prison at the end of 2010 were, according to CPJ (2010, 10 December):

* Uzbekistan freelancer Dzhamshid Karimov, who wrote for the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting and online and independent publications, has been in forced psychiatric confinement since 2006. Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a reporter who covered corruption, human rights, economics, and social issues for the independent website Uznews, is imprisoned on phony 2008 drug possession charges. Freelancer Dilmurod Saiid has been behind bars since 2009 after accusations of extortion and forgery; he had written about abuses against farmers for the independent website Voice of Freedom and local newspapers. Kyrgyzstani authorities in June 2010 arrested Azimjon Askarov, a human rights activist and freelancer for Voice of Freedom, on charges of organising riots, possession of extremist literature and ammunition, attempted kidnapping, and complicity in a police officer's murder. In September 2010, a judge imposed a life sentence.

As a result, scholars now are examining Central Asian regime efforts to curtail new media. Among them, Hoerdegen (2011) described the future of Internet media in Uzbekistan; Kohlmeier and Nekbakhtshoev (2011) wrote about extension of Tajikistan's libel laws to new media.

These developments reflect the need for media development and advocacy NGOs to broaden their traditional definition of journalists whose skills need improvement and whose rights need safeguarding. They also highlight the continuing need for scholarship examining such efforts.

Overview of Exemplar Media Watch Organisations

This section presents an overview of the self-descriptions and goals of four U.S.-based organisations that work to protect journalists, report on press rights abuses, and foster more democratic media systems. Such organisations may engage in multiple types of activities, but in an attempt to broadly classify their major area of emphasis, this article applies a three-part categorisation based on what these organisations describe on their websites. Within those three categories, CPJ falls under active advocacy and defense of press rights and journalists, IREX and Freedom House fall under information gathering and dissemination, and falls under frequent reporting of news about press rights.

This article's methodology included exploratory interviews with leaders or staff of these NGOs in New York City in March 2011 and in Washington, D.C., in April 2011. Open-ended interviews lasted from a half-hour to an hour each. They are useful for understanding how staff and executives view their work and their groups' accomplishments to democratise press systems, advocate for journalists' rights, assess violations of press rights, and cover news events relevant to press freedom. The interviews also provide insights into the organisations' challenges and obstacles in critical analysis and watchdog reporting, particularly in countries with extreme forms of censorship and constraints, harassment, and imprisonment of journalists.

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Institutional self-description: Founded in 1981, CPJ ( is an independent, nonprofit organisation promoting international press freedom by defending journalists' rights to report news without fear of reprisal. It was created by a group of American foreign correspondents in response to brutal treatment of their foreign colleagues by authoritarian governments and other forces obstructing independent journalism. CPJ has a full-time staff in New York, including area specialists for major world regions, as well as a Washington, D.C., representative and consultants around the world. CPJ justifies its advocacy by stating, "Without a free press, few other human rights are attainable. A strong press freedom environment encourages the growth of a robust civil society, which leads to stable, sustainable democracies and healthy social, political, and economic development." It operates in more than 120 countries, targeting those with repressive regimes, debilitating civil wars, or other problems that threaten and obstruct press freedom and democracy. By publicising abuses and acting on behalf of imprisoned and threatened journalists, CPJ alerts journalists and news organisations as to where attacks on the press and journalistic freedom are occurring, organises public protests, and works through diplomatic channels to affect change.

Joel Simon, executive director, 11 March, 2011: In an interview with the authors, Simon described CPJ as "a case-based organisation" whose "day-to-day work is defending individual journalists when a crisis is going on." He said CPJ has had an impact on U.S. policy, for example, by briefing ambassadors, members of the National Security Council, and State Department desk officers. As a result, "we're part of the voices heard on these kinds of hard policy issues ... We're the group likely to be consulted" on press rights matters.

How does CPJ differentiate itself from other press rights and media development NGOs? He responded that the International Center for Journalists is primarily a training organisation, while International PEN is a freedom-of-expression advocacy group for essayists, novelists, writers, and poets. "Novelists aren't journalists. Poets aren't journalists. Essayists may be journalists, so, we overlap, and we're close with them," he said of International PEN. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have a "broad human rights mandate" that includes but is not limited to journalists.

In his view, human rights monitoring reports "rarely break new ground" but are "useful to the extent that the government of those countries ... take note, and they have a different kind of response when this information is distributed in the State Department reports." Such reports get cited by congressional officials in discussions of foreign aid and bilateral cooperation. He estimated that only half of CPJ protest letters to foreign governments generate official replies, adding, "Sometimes the responses are non-responses. Sometimes there's an engagement."

Assailants and murderers of journalists often operate with impunity and without fear of prosecution; CPJ's agenda includes investigating whether an attack was motivated by the victim' s professional activities and, if so, how officials are investigating those crimes. The organisation also draws media attention to anti-press incidents by persuading journalists to report on such stories and ensuring that "we give them information that's legitimately newsworthy ... Somebody needs to stand up and say 'What's happening in Egypt now, what's happening in Uzbekistan, what's happening ... wherever it might be is important.'"

Institutional self-description: New York-based EurasiaNet. org ( strives to provide the most comprehensive and informative coverage of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia available on the Internet. As a news organisation, it presents information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, Turkey, and Southwest Asia. It advocates for unfettered and informed discussion of issues focused on Eurasia. Its stories incorporate multiple perspectives on contemporary developments in media transition toward press freedom, using correspondents in the West and Eurasia. Its primary objective is to further informed decision-making among policymakers, as well as broadening general public interest in the region. It is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Foundations. Focus areas include: (1) Analysis: articles on current events that build on context and place emphasise anticipating future developments; (2) Business and Economics: articles that closely examine deals and trends and their possible impact on economic development; (3) Civil Society: covering environment, human rights, and culture; (4) Question-and-Answer: interviews with newsmakers and opinion shapers; and (5) Multimedia Coverage: photography and video reporting. Its "Voices" blog is a platform to monitor news and updates about the region. It also has a Russian-language service.

Justin Burke, director, 10 March, 2011: In an interview with the authors, Burke said the organisation assumes the traditional watchdog role of press systems in countries that tightly constrain reporting about government. He gave the example of how helped spark a U.S. congressional investigation into abuses in maintenance of the fuel supply at Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. Its investigation revealed loose oversight and possibly corrupt practices (for example, Tynan, 2010). The organisation highlights issues consistent with those that the George Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundations work on, such as labour migration, corruption, water use, and the region's underclass. Burke said is after "good stories," such as a photo essay showing how Kyrgyzstani farmers adapt "space junk"--pieces of rockets--to their own needs. He cited a feature about International Women's Day in an Armenian mountain village where most of the men are absent as labour migrants. When asked about competition for stories from other international media outlets, Burke replied:
   When the New York Times parachutes into the region, we kick their
   asses. The Times writes one story summarising an issue we've
   covered for months. Although the Times has more experience, time,
   and a bigger editorial team, on any given day we can provide even
   more information and better analysis, but it's not as polished.

With regard to reporters and contributors to cover stories, he said it is often difficult to find local journalists with adequate English writing skills. Some locals are not used as reporters because they hold political positions or have other conflicts of interest. He gave the example of dropping a reporter who became a publicist for a national bank in the Caucasus, a full-time paying job in a state structure.

International Research & Exchanges Board

Institutional self-description: IREX ( engages in media development to foster professional media and "citizen journalism" that can help build more transparent and effective governance. It promotes fairer and more open economies, generates responsible public discussion, and provides information that citizens need to improve their lives and communities. Its work with local partners advances media professionalism, sustainability, sound media laws, and local institutions that support independent media and journalism professionalism. In recognition of the evolution of interactive and multiplatform media and the emerging role of "citizen journalists," it endeavours to provide and adapt new technologies that advance the democratisation of the flow of information. It publishes an annual Media Sustainability Index for several world regions, one of which includes Eurasia; the intent is to inform policymakers, academics, and media practitioners who also want more public access to information.

Leon Morse, managing editor, Media Sustainability Index, 4 May, 2011: Morse's responsibilities include editing IREX's annual Media Sustainability Index for Europe and Eurasia. Because of funding limitations, IREX is not as active in media development work in Central Asia, although it has such projects elsewhere, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Belarus.

In an interview with one of the authors, Morse explained that IREX typically doesn't do the kind of projects that require it to enter a country, conduct training, and leave. The organisation prefers long-term projects generally lasting two or three years, using a mix local and expatriate staff and a local office. One project in Turkmenistan, for example, taught girls how to use the Internet and new technologies but refrained from teaching them how to use such technology for "citizen journalism." It also conducts rigorous evaluations of the productivity and results of such projects.

The recent 10th edition of its Europe and Eurasia Media Sustainability Index documents positive and negative changes in mass media systems over time. "You can divine through these studies latent strengths and weaknesses. Even if it's bad, it can get worse," Morse said, noting that in-country panel discussions with journalists in Uzbekistan were discontinued because of the regime's crackdown on the media. "Just that tells you something about the media in the country," he said. In its early years, the report excluded Turkmenistan because its primary funder, the U.S. Agency for International Development, reasoned that there was no independent media to evaluate nor were there prospects that any would appear. For the last three years, however, IREX included Turkmenistan in the report because "it is important to show just how bad it is." For Kyrgyzstan, Morse cited "some advances and some regression --a mixed bag;" he saw some consolidation of control of national media there and said governors' deputies are pre-censoring publications in the provinces.

The difference between IREX and other press freedom rating studies is that "we pick up some nuances that other macro-studies miss," but he does not claim IREX studies are superior. Freedom House studies and ratings are more succinct and have a longer history of using American media experts. By comparison, IREX reports have more text, scoring is done primarily by local media professionals, and the text is written entirely by local media professionals.

Freedom House

Institutional self-description: Freedom House ( was established in 1941 to propagandise for American involvement in World War II. In the 1970s, it shifted its focus to the failure of democratisation and freedom in the developing world. To challenge the spread of Marxist regimes, juntas, and military dictatorships in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, it initiated programmes merging research and analysis, advocacy, and on-the-ground involvement. More recently, especially after the 11 September, 2011, terrorist attacks in the United States, it expanded operations in Central Asia and the Middle East. It annually publishes Freedom of the Press, which identifies the most significant threats to independent media in 196 countries and territories. The publication ranks and rates each country's media as "free," "partly free," or "not free," with narratives that discuss the legal environment for the media, political pressures on journalism, and economic factors influencing access to information. Its survey contains the most comprehensive data set available on global media freedom and is at the heart of its press freedom project. The latest edition illustrates that global media freedom has significantly declined, contributing to an environment in which most of the world's population lives in countries without a free press. Freedom House says its assessments are a key resource for scholars, policymakers, and international institutions.

Freedom House (Karin Kalikar, senior researcher and managing editor of Freedom of the Press, New York City), 11 March, 2011: In an interview with one of the authors, Kalikar explained that the organisation provides a mix of publications and programmess and that Central Asia has become a main focus; however, Freedom House operations closed in Uzbekistan after the regime banned foreign NGOs. She said the scope of most programmes is broader than just press freedom and deals more broadly with human rights. While it actively advocates for democracy, assistance efforts have been scaled back in Central Asia.

She said Freedom House financed the first independent printing press in Kyrgyzstan, one of the only instances in which a programme the organisation sponsored directly affected the score on one of its evaluation criteria: in this case, the increase in means of production. The printing press also has an impact on other countries whose independent papers could be printed there. As a result, Freedom House evaluated the press system as "relatively unfettered by government involvement," despite other acts of government interference--as when electrical power to the printing plant was cut off before an election. Kalikar said that Freedom House has had an impact on the ground structurally, but has been "less successful" at getting governments to change.

She noted the recently launched Freedom House index on Internet freedom addresses dissemination of news and information and the rise of "citizen journalism" using new media in developing nations.

Summary and Conclusions

Two decades have passed since independence came to Central Asia, long enough for some other ex-Soviet republics--most visibly those in the Baltics--to advance toward and even implement democratic media sy tems. As this article demonstrates, that is not true in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The same period has been characterised by expanded citizen use of the Internet, social media, and new media, even in some of the world's least-developed countries.

Scholars, funders, journalism trainers and professionals, human rights activists, and civil society experts have discussed at length the complex reasons why Central Asia's constrained media environment continues. They have created mechanisms to monitor that media environment and disseminate the results of their monitoring. Moreover, they have proffered recommendations--and sometimes financial backing -for strategies and tactics to loosen that environment, nurture and sustain independent media, and deter and combat restrictions on individual journalists and news organisations.

This article categorises international media advocacy and press rights based on their self-described primary missions: information-gatherers and disseminators: media defenders; and reporters about press rights. However, this trichotomy is merely a starting point in need of refinement. First, it is based on only four U.S.-based NGOs active in Central Asia. Thus, it may not reflect other international NGOs headquartered in the United States or abroad. Many similar and semi-similar NGOs exist, some focused on media and the press and others that encompass media and press rights in wider human rights and civil society portfolios.

Second, it is questionable how well these categories accommodate the work and missions of media development and press defender activities of multinational agencies, such as UNESCO and OSCE, or national government agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development. Third, it oversimplifies organisations with multiple missions. Perhaps most importantly, it may not align well with activities by domestic NGOs, including journalist membership organisations, in individual Central Asian countries.

Miller (2011) writes, "... This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing--to train on a global scale what is proponents assertively call 'world journalism'--in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or politico-cultural history of North America and Western Europe". Thus, deserving further study is the role and effectiveness of media assistance programmes--what Hume (2004) labels "media missionaries"--including trainings, legal and legislative advice, university curricular overhauls, and provision of equipment and technology to media outlets. Funders are demanding better monitoring and evaluation, according to Mosher (2011). In addition to assessing techniques and results, the authors of this article believe there is a need for independent consideration of sponsors' and funders' intent, strategies, and motivations.

Therefore, emergence of credible and useful methods to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of media development and press rights defense efforts should be accelerated due to the sparse evidence of positive impacts as well as the uncertainty of continuing government, multi-government, industry, and foundation funding for these activities. Also, more effective strategies are required to better understand what citizens of these countries want and need from their media in the context of political, cultural, and historical realities.

The results of external assessments and self-assessments generally are kept proprietary rather than shared with scholars or otherwise made public. That lack of transparency in evaluating media development in the region can impede both scholarship and policy assessment. For example, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America refused an academic researcher's freedom-of information request for audience research reports it commissioned for its service in Central Asia from an outside organisation, InterMedia. Both those international broadcast services provide U.S. perspectives on news and information to Central Asian listeners, viewers, and Internet users as alternatives to that supplied by their domestic media. The board's denial letter written said the requested documents contain "ongoing BBG analysis of language service performance and possible BBG decisions to add or delete services," information it called "part of the pre-decisional and deliberative process" (Kollmer-Doresey, 2010).

Finally, scholars, activists, and practitioners should closely follow the rapidly changing use of new media and social media by professional journalists, partisans, and ordinary citizens and its ability to shape the agendas of the public and of governments. As borders between professional and non-professional communicators further blur, more questions are inevitable: Who is a journalist and how do press rights defender groups determine when to speak out on behalf of someone who falls outside traditional definitions? In an interview with the authors on 11 March, 2011, CPJ's Joel Simon said:
   Journalism has always been a profession, an activity really, that's
   not so easy to define. It takes different shapes, different forms
   within different societies ... These are questions we've always
   grappled with. but these are questions which are very hard to
   answer in the abstract. If you try and craft a definition that is
   adequate to encompass everything that is journalistic. you're tying
   yourself up in knots about what is actually a very common-sense
   judgment.... You look at a blog and somebody's saying things like,
   "I was just at a demonstration, and here's what I saw," we don't
   have to make abstract judgments. If somebody posts that blog and
   nothing happens with it, we don't have to say whether (it's
   journalism). If you post that blog and say, "I was at this
   demonstration, and I saw police beating people. Here are some
   pictures. Here's what I witnessed and the person is hauled off to
   jail," they're a journalist as far as we're concerned.

Finally, the spread of new media suggests other areas for inquiry about media-related NGOs in Central Asia. Among them: Should media development organisations train bloggers and "citizen journalists" and, if so, what should they train them about what and with what funding? What roles can and should domestic and international NGOs play in the defense of bloggers, website administrators, and "citizen journalists," including those affiliated with opposition parties and outlawed groups? Seeking the answers to these questions will aid in the analysis of the failed push toward press freedom in Central Asia.


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Richard Shafer is Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota Department of English, U.S., where he teaches graduate and undergraduate mass media courses. He completed his dissertation at the University of Missouri on the role of the Philippine press in social change and development and has conducted journalism seminars and workshops worldwide.

Eric Freedman is Associate Professor of Journalism and Associate Dean of International Studies & Programs at Michigan State University, U.S. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a former Fulbright senior scholar at World Languages University in Uzbekistan. Professor Freedman's research interests include press systems, journalism education, and professional journalism practices in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and international journalism education and training.
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Author:Shafer, Richard; Freedman, Eric
Publication:Journal of Development Communication
Geographic Code:4E0WE
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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