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Recent world events have demonstrated that the Internet—and social media tools in particular—are increasingly useful for political organizing, not merely frivolous virtual spaces for youthful publics to connect socially. Rather, social media is touted as “the crucible in which repressed civil societies can revive and develop.”1 For the people of Central Asia—where free expression is curtailed and news outlets are under official or non-state, non-official government censorship—information and communication technology (ICT) provides an increasingly important vehicle for political expression. Blogging and social media tools may fulfill a crucial role for non-journalists and oppositional groups that journalism serves in more democratic societies, as recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran illustrate.

In earlier eras, the costs associated with traditional or legacy media necessarily limited participation to small groups of elites. Now, the relative lack of entry costs in the online world raises the prospects for mass publics to bypass those traditional gatekeepers and become publishers and broadcasters on their own.2 ICTs have “had clear roles in both starting new democratic processes in some countries and entrenching them in others,” Howard noted.3 However, the libertarian possibilities of increased freedom facilitated by ICT access have a dark reality, as repressitarian governments adapt to the Internet age by exerting power over the Internet’s infrastructure and using activist communications for surveillance purposes.4

This paper reviews recent events and legal developments related to the Internet and social media in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. They include legislation extending libel laws to online communications, blocking of oppositional and independent websites, and punishing journalists who report or comment for online media.

Post-Soviet Repression in Central Asia

A well-established function of journalism in civil society is to furnish citizens with the free flow of reliable information they require to be free and self-governing.5 This function is a necessary part of any discussion of the changes to the media environment wrought by increased access to ICT.6 Yet two decades after their independence from the Soviet Union, the five Central Asian republics remain bastions of official and extra-legal censorship, self-censorship, constraints on journalists and news organizations, and insufficient financial resources to support independent, and sustainable, market-based press systems. These constraints prevent the development and operation of press systems that could contribute to more honest and transparent governance, build trust in the press’ credibility, promote pluralistic political systems, and promote the dissemination and critique of information and news that advances human rights and national development.7

In the face of what Shafer and Freedman describe as “the bleak press rights territory of post-Soviet Central Asia…,”8 all five nations’ constitutions9 include press freedom provisions that are not enforced. The press systems vary in such components as proportion of non-state media outlets, journalist salaries, and the structure of government agencies that regulate the media. However, their shared characteristics enable policymakers, researchers, and foreign funders to examine the media environment on regional and nation-by-nation bases.

Since independence, these nations have been governed by regimes that can be classified as repressitarian—“meaning both authoritarian in governance and repressive in human rights practices.”10 There have been no pluralistic or democratic replacements yet in Central Asia for the Soviet press model. We attribute that absence to several factors, particularly “the perpetuation of authoritarianism by regimes more committed to self-survival and self-aggrandizement than to effectively guiding and encouraging the press to advance economic and social development and participatory governance.”11 In addition, efforts by Western funders to build democratic press systems through professional training, university-level journalism education, and subsidies to fledgling independent media outlets have fallen short, in part because of the region’s history, economics, cultural traditions, national rivalries, and power politics.

The Media Sustainability Index12 published by the U.S.-based International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) highlights reasons (see Table 1) why a dramatic expansion of press freedom appears unlikely at this time. Another U.S.-based NGO, Freedom House13, ranks all five press systems as “not free.” Press rights defender and advocacy groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations regularly criticize the regimes for their anti-press policies and actions. So do foreign government and multinational agencies such as the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media.

…. http://www.ca-c.org/online/2012/journal_eng/cac-01/12.shtml

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