NEW DELHI: Freedom of Press is a marker of freedom of speech and expression across societies. It denotes how free a society is. Political leaders, social elites and governments in power always try to paint a ‘rosy picture’ of the conditions inside their home states in terms of the extent of freedom people have in their respective states. It has been often seen that authoritarian governments try doing it more as a preventive step of ‘face-saving’ in the international community.

Every government wants to show the international community that they rule with morality and that they are on the ‘right side’ of history. They try to show that their people are behind them in any decisions they take which may appear wrong in the eyes of others (other states and its people), but those decisions are taken for the long-term benefits of their own citizens. Under its purview, governments and leaders across the world have used these arguments to put restrictions on freedom to speech, expression and dissent; using the same logic they have extended these restrictions to curb the freedom of press.

The same thing happened in the newly independent post-soviet states after the break-up of USSR in 1991. The states together form the Central Asian region which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All these states, even after independence from USSR did not shed away the political structures that were laid deep inside these states in the 70 years when they were the part of Soviet Union. This system left extremely little space for popular dissent in the form of political opposition or any critique by media.

Central Asia as a region fairs quite poorly in terms of Freedom to the masses in general, especially with respect to the heavy restrictions on the ‘information flow’ and the kind of information that is flowing. This is clearly evident with the rankings in the Freedom of Press Report 2016 (provided by Freedom House), where two Central Asian countries i.e, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan feature among the ten worst performing countries in the word in terms of freedom of press in the country. This is in itself a kind of revelation that the region is suffering from authoritarianism and absolutism.

In Kazakhstan, the situation of press freedom in the country is quite bad. This has been reflected year after year in the Freedom of the Press-Country Report released by Freedom House, an international body which comes with this report since 1980.

This year (2016) Freedom of Press Report has again shown that Press Freedom Status in Kazakhstan is ‘Not Free’. The quick fact data sheet of this report reveals a lot about the political environment of the country. Under the Political Environment column, the score of Kazakhstan is 33/40, where 40 depict the worst case scenario. This has been reflected in the Press Freedom Score as well because Political environment in any society has a direct correlation with Freedom of Press there.

The Press Freedom Score of Kazakhstan for the year 2016 is 84/100, where 100 depict the worst case scenario. This has been again reflected again in the legal environment of the country as freedom of judiciary is also interlinked with the freedom of speech. Under that column too, the score was 28/30, where 30 depicted the worst case scenario.

The report says in its overview of situation in Kazakhstan, “The Kazakh government continued its steady repression of the media in 2015, as economic uncertainty grew and the country held a presidential vote in April. Although the government passed a long-awaited freedom of information law, it remained to be seen how the legislation would be implemented in practice.

Similarly Uzbekistan fails on all parameters in terms of Freedom of Press, Freedom in the World Status and Net Freedom Status. The status of freedom accorded by Freedom House agency is ‘Not Free’ year after year. The Press Freedom Score of the country is 95/100, 100 depicting the worst case scenario. In the legal environment category, the country has reached the rock bottom by scoring 30/30, where 30 depicts the worst case scenario.

In the Political and Economic Environment, the country’s score is 37/40 and 28/30 respectively, where 40 and 30 depicts the worst case scenario. Freedom House in its overview of Uzbekistan’s scenario says, “Uzbekistan’s government continued to show a blatant disregard for constitutional provisions during 2015, leaving freedom of expression and freedom of the press virtually non-existent in the country. While some journalists and activists were released from prison, others were detained and beaten for documenting taboo subjects. Social media remain a viable outlet for public dissent, but the security apparatus is becoming savvier at blocking proxy servers and other tools used to access banned websites and mobile applications”.

On expected lines, Turkmenistan performed quite poorly this year. Here also, the Press Freedom Status is ‘Not Free’. The situation is extremely bad as the Press Freedom Score of the country is at 96/100, 100 depicting the worst case scenario possible. That means Turkmenistan is just inches away from becoming the worst possible state in terms of Freedom of Press.

The Human Rights Watch in its report on the country reveals that “Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries, with a disastrous human rights record. It thoroughly denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion, and the country is closed to independent scrutiny. Proposed “reform” of the constitution promises no actual expansion of fundamental rights and freedoms. The total absence of media freedom in Turkmenistan remains unchanged”.

Tajikistan has also been put under ‘Not Free’ category by the 2016 Freedom of Press Report. Even in the category of ‘Freedom in the World’ status, Tajikistan has been categorized as ‘Not Free’, while the Press Freedom Score was 83/100, 100 depicting the worst case scenario. The score in Political and Legal Environment was 32/40 and 26/30 respectively.

Radio Free Europe in its report on Tajikistan mentioned that, “independent media outlets in Tajikistan say it has become difficult for them to interview officials following a new government directive instructing officials to make the state news agency their first choice of channels for giving information to the press. Editors of independent outlets have mentioned that the directive already has had a chilling effect on officials who once spoke with them. The result could be a further shrinking of the already small space for independent journalists to operate in Tajikistan, where government monitoring and censorship have long been the rule”.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the region which gives some hope to cheer about. This has reflected well in the Press Freedom Score of Kyrgyzstan which is 67/100, which is comparatively far better than any another Central Asian country. In the column of Political and Legal environment of the country, the score was 27/40 and 20/30 respectively, which again portrays somewhat better situation of media in the country.

Again, the reason behind the partly better situation can be attributed to the political structure of the country. Also referred as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’, the country got independence like other Central Asian states in 1991. Article 16 of the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan presents a liberal view with respect to the Freedom of Speech and Expression. It says, "Everyone in the Kyrgyz Republic has the right to the free expression and dissemination of thoughts, ideas, and opinions and to free literary, artistic scientific and technical creativity, and freedom of the press and to broadcast and disseminates information”.

Though, Central Asian diplomats, few scholars and academicians refute the data provided by western agencies, think-tanks and scholars by saying that all that is a big western propaganda to malign the image of the region.

The reason being that western countries want to get access to the regions resources and that’s why they went to make deep inroads into the region by giving false information to the world about the poor condition of civil liberties and human rights there. This would make their case strong in their old time game (lies) of promoting democracies in these states by any means possible.

Central Asian region’s politics, political system and political structures in each of the states have evolved in the same historical context at its start. All of them were a part of USSR and that is why these structures are the reflectors of the context in which they evolved, developed and finally got entrenched. Though, to counter the arguments of west on the freedom of press in Central Asia, nothing concrete explanation has been given by Central Asian social elites or political leaders.

Merely refuting the accusations supported by data would not do justice to their own arguments which would sound hollow without a proper justification supported by facts. No situation can be presented in complete white or black. There is some truth to both sides of the story but the side manages to convey its message and convince the larger audience by showing concrete proofs is the one which gains more credibility. On an ending note, it does not seem that the situation with respect to Freedom of Press will change in immediate future, though in the longer run things might turn for good.

(The writer is a research student at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)