BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Three weeks of reporting from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in summer 2007 left me with the unhappy realization that journalism is getting worse, not better, in both countries.
That wasn’t always the case. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was genuine optimism that a fact-based journalism, untainted by fear of government reprisal, might flourish in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Time has proven that optimism to be wrong, however. Despite much money and effort on the part of American and European journalism trainers, the once-bright goal of an unfettered press is fading across Central Asia.
I have spent roughly three months in Kazakhstan, visiting every two years since 2003. On each successive trip, I am impressed by the growing array of consumer goods and improvement in infrastructure that the country, rich in gas and oil, has made. But even as its vast wealth has begun to trickle down to ordinary Kazakhs, journalism has largely devolved into a lapdog, consumed by unreliability and self-censorship.
Kyrgyzstan’s press, once a bright spot for freedom of speech and journalism in Central Asia, now teeters on a slippery slope of self-censorship and self-doubt as the political climate changes and government interference grows. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan remain closed societies with tightly controlled journalism.
No protests allowed
Outside the Kazakh-British Technical University in central Almaty, middle-school-age children step down from four buses, grouping together in a large square under the direction of adults loudly blowing whistles. It’s a warm June afternoon. From two blocks away, it’s hard to tell what’s happening. And for a minute, I mistake the children for adults and wonder whether some sort of protest is forming.
Stunned at this utterly odd possibility, I walk at a rapid pace toward the square. My fixer, walking a few steps behind, is surprised when I bolt toward the scene. She laughs as we get closer, and I explain what I think I’ve seen.
“There’s no way this is a protest,” she says. “There are no protests in Kazakhstan. There is no free speech in this country. You know that. If it was (a protest), the police would already be here taking people to jail.”
She gives me a sideways glance as she shakes her head, surprised at my inquiry.
Rumors: the “news” of choice
Someone poisoned former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev in his Bishkek office May 11, 2007. Or not; but that’s what the former prime minister — replaced in office following tainted elections in December 2007 — has charged. Atambayev said he was unconscious for two days after being poisoned. He later supplied medical reports to support the poisoning claim.
No matter; the press did not seem to care — and neither did ordinary Kyrgyz citizens — during my reporting trip a month or so later. Newspapers and TV reported Atambayev’s claims at the time, as well as his subsequent June visit to Turkey for medical treatment.
There were, however, few follow-up stories and no media outrage.
What if a Western European prime minister had claimed to be poisoned, I asked local journalists? Or, just as good, what if Atambayev made the whole thing up?
News values, of course, vary from place to place. In Kyrgyzstan, as elsewhere in Central Asia, “the long ear” is an important source of information. It is the spread of gossip, rumor and innuendo as fact, passed orally from one person to another. It carries more weight, in many cases, than news stories reported by the media, which also commonly report rumor.
“Information does not necessarily mean real information,” said Alan Kubatiev, an associate professor of journalism at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. “It could be invented stories that contain some truth.”
Sorting out the differences between what appears to be true and what is actually true remains a difficult proposition in Kyrgyzstan, as its former prime minister can attest.
PR, journalism debate rages
Gulnar Assanbayeva is a senior lecturer in journalism at Almaty’s Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, the “Harvard of Kazakhstan,” as students at the school call it. If Kazakh media during the Soviet period was propaganda, she says, today’s media is the “propaganda of consumerism.”
“Media was a tool for propaganda; now it is a tool for business,” Assanbayeva added. “The best journalists are moving into advertising or public relations because there are no headaches” from the government. “As one former journalist told me, ‘It’s better to sell beer than newspapers in this country.”