Central Asia: Governments must uphold commitments to protect journalists

A free, independent media is essential for providing ordinary citizens in Central Asia with the information they need to make decisions for their future and hold their governments to account. However, freedom of expression has long been restricted in the region, where expression of alternative viewpoints and criticism of authorities is seen as a threat. Independent journalists and media organisations are censored, or forced into self-censorship, limiting the free flow of information and discussion on matters of public interest. The general trend is negative throughout the region, with restrictions on freedom of expression increasing.

Of particular concern are legal threats: broadly-worded legislation used to target critical voices and false charges brought against individuals to silence or imprison. This threat is compounded by the fact that human rights lawyers in the region are also targeted. Journalists receive physical threats because of their work with individuals at especial risk when covering or attending rallies and protests. Most worrying is the continuing impunity for perpetrators where very few victims of attacks see their attackers brought to justice. Digital threats across Central Asia significantly narrow the space for online freedom of expression with government monitoring of individuals’ online communications combined with legal threats used to bring criminal cases against journalists and media organisations. The use of terrorism and extremism legislation to block websites is also extremely concerning, with no recourse provided to those affected.

Despite this, journalists continue to work in Central Asia, publishing courageous and critical stories and pursue innovative campaigns and projects. They are hugely resilient in developing new mitigations to the threats they face. Local organisations have also been instrumental in ensuring that journalists and their organisations develop practical skills to deal with some of these threats to their safety and security.

ARTICLE 19 urges the governments of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to uphold their commitments under international human rights treaties to protect journalists. They should refrain from abusing powers of arrest or criminal charges to harass and intimidate independent media, publicly condemn all attacks on journalists and immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained or convicted for exercising their freedom of expression rights.