ANKARA, 27 Oct 2004 (IRIN) - Freedom of the press remains poor amongst the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, says a new report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
"The situation is very bad. We simply don't know a lot about what is happening there," Soria Blatmann, head of the watchdog group's European desk, told IRIN from Paris, calling for a more comprehensive assessment of the region.
Her comments coincide with the release of RSF's third annual index of press freedom on Tuesday, measuring conditions in 167 countries worldwide. As in earlier reports, the situation remained particularly poor in Asia, which has eight countries in the bottom 10: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Vietnam, China, Turkmenistan, Burma and North Korea.
In terms of Central Asia, there was little improvement over last year, with Turkmenistan ranking the worst regionally at 164, followed by Uzbekistan (142), Kazakhstan (131), Kyrgyzstan (107) and Tajikistan (95).
In the five former Soviet republics an independent media either did not exist or journalists continued to be persecuted on a daily basis, with no guarantee of freedom of information or the safety of journalists.
"Turkmenistan is the absolute worst," Blatmann said, adding there was no established independent or private press in the country whatsoever.
"There are no real journalists in Turkmenistan and it's impossible to get a correct or impartial view of this country," she said. "We should concentrate on this country and put the maximum pressure on this incredible dictatorship."
There are very few countries in the world today that had no private press at all, the Paris-based activist maintained, adding: "Turkmenistan is one of those very sad exceptions."
But the situation in neighbouring in Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous state, was hardly much better. "The government is completely intolerant of any type of criticism," the activist said, noting a lack of independent journalists on the ground.
Journalists wishing to write about local corruption faced a barrage of problems, she claimed, citing the recent case of journalist and human rights defender Ruslan Sharipov, who only this month received political asylum in the United States after being sentenced to five years on trumped up charges, including homosexuality and sex with a minor, having written extensively on government corruption and improprieties.
"This is a typical way to silence the most critical journalists and an ugly way to silence any opponent," Blatmann pointedly noted.
And while Kazakhstan had a slightly better ranking than Uzbekistan, she said that such charges against journalists were not unusual there either.
"There is more independent press in Kazakhstan, but we know the government is able to find a means to imprison those who oppose them."
Meanwhile, in the mountainous states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, some media outlets continue to face problems just in having their material printed by state-owned firms, the RSF official said, describing this as a very efficient way to censor the independent press.
With elections scheduled to take place at the end 2004 in Uzbekistan, and early 2005 in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the prognosis for any improvement in the level of press freedom in the region doesn't look good.
"Our experience shows that every time there is a run up to an election, the governments are more severe with the press. This is systematic," she observed, noting that this was a very dangerous time for journalists in those countries.
Each year RSF compiles its index by asking its partner organisations (14 freedom of expression organisations in five countries), its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 52 questions to indicate the state of press freedom in 167 countries (others were not included for lack of information).
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