Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been placed among the “worst of the worst” countries for political rights and civil liberties by the United States-based watchdog group Freedom House.
The watchdog group listed the two Central Asian states, along with North Korea, Syria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, amongst the bottom nine performers in its Freedom in the World Report 2012, released on May 1.
“Whereas prior to 2011 the ‘president for life’ phenomenon was principally associated with the Middle East, it is today more likely to apply to the long-term leaders of the former Soviet Union,” Freedom House said, noting that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were ruled by dictators from the Soviet past.
The two neighbours were branded “not free” along with 46 other countries including Tajikistan and Kazakstan; all four have been listed in this category in the last three annual Freedom House reports.
The best Central Asian performer this year was Kyrgyzstan, rated “partly free” for the second year running.
Vyacheslav Abramov, director of Freedom House in Kazakstan’s capital Almaty, said free speech had been “completely suppressed” in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the past decade.
Independent journalists in both countries face numerous problems and work in “unbearable and hazardous” conditions, Abramov said.
“Journalists are persecuted, exposed to serious threats, and some of them are still imprisoned,” he added.
Turkmenistan is a one-party police state with no independent media. The security service is omnipresent, tapping phones, monitoring internet traffic and preventing people regarded as suspect from leaving the country.
Uzbekistan blocks news websites including the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and IWPR, and in March and April it clamped down on individual journalists. (See Journalists Targeted to Deter Others in Uzbekistan.)
Kyrgyzstan may be doing slightly better than its neighbours but it cannot afford to rest on its laurels, according to Elina Karakulova, director of the Media Support Programme at the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan. For example, the Kyrgyz parliament has ordered the Ferghana.ru website to be blocked and has banned news outlets from rebroadcasting foreign media content during presidential elections.
The Freedom House report noted “deep divisions” between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks, and said little progress had been made in bringing to justice those responsible for the bloodshed in June 2010, when more than 400 people were killed in and around the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad.
Karakulova believes Kyrgyzstan should be doing better, and that the bar for Central Asian states is set very low.
“We’re ahead of Tajikistan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – we are the best of the worst,” she said. “That isn’t any consolation. If you look at our recent rankings, we’re marking time.”
This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at firstname.lastname@example.org.