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Podcast: The Relevance Of Radio In Central Asia


Radio was always an important mass medium in Soviet times and still plays a vital role today in disseminating information in Central Asia.

February 13 is a special day for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and for us at the Majlis.

It's World Radio Day.

Radio is still a part of everyday life in many places and one of those places is Central Asia.

So to look at the role of radio in Central Asia, past and present, RFE/RL put together a Majlis, or panel.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Joining the Majlis was Umed Babakhanov, the founder of Tajikistan's independent news agency Asia-Plus. Also participating was Bakyt Beshimov, a former member of Kyrgyzstan's parliament and currently a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. I've been in Central Asia; I've listened to the radio there, so I sat in on the conversation as well.

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

Babakhanov said, "Since Soviet times radio has always been the most important mass media in Central Asia, even more important than TV, I would say. He explained that Central Asia "continues [to be] predominantly agrarian and people in the field cannot watch TV but they can listen to the radio all day long."

Beshimov recalled that when he was campaigning for a seat in parliament in 2007 "during two months I traveled to all provinces of Kyrgyzstan, met with a lot of people…" He said many people he met with had more information about the parliamentary campaign than he expected. "We asked from what kind of sources are you getting this information and what sources of information {do] you prefer to trust and I got the answer, the majority of the answers, about Radio Liberty, about Azattyk Radiosy [RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service]."

'Information Shock'

Both guests recalled what it was like to listen to foreign radio broadcasts during the Soviet era. It was forbidden of course but thousands of people behind the Iron Curtain took the risk anyway.

Beshimov remembered in the late 1970s "my friend, he introduced me to Golos Ameriki, Voice of America." Beshimov said, "It was for me some kind of an information shock because when I got the analysis of events in the Soviet Union and I understood what different opinions there could be."

Babakhanov remembered being a translator in the Soviet military in 1986 and being stationed in Sevastopol. Babakhanov was a translator for Arabic, his roommate, a Ukrainian, was a translator for English."One day, on April 26 I guess, in 1986, we are listening to Radio BBC … and suddenly we got the news about an accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant," Babakhanov recalled.

Soviet media did not report anything about the accident for several days. Babakhanov's roommate had a wife who was pregnant living in Kyiv. The two young lieutenants faced a tough choice. Admitting to listening to BBC was a serious infraction, particularly by military personnel, but Babakhanov's roommate was too worried to wait. "We went to our chief commanders asking what happened," Babakhanov said, "Our commanders said don't trust these foreign voices. It's just a lie."

Several days later, Soviet media finally confirmed what had happened at Chernobyl.

Sanitized State Reporting

The situation in much of Central Asia is still the same today. Certainly in Turkmenistan, the scale of natural disasters and the failures of the government usually go unreported. Even the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan, which neighbors Turkmenistan, were not reported at the time. When circumstances force some sort of official acknowledgement the state media's version is heavily sanitized.

With the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, the situation with information in the other Central Asian countries is not much better.

Babakhanov said, "Tajik authorities they considered, and still consider, radio and TV as strategically important for their security."

Beshimov added, "These leaders from the old era even the young generation of leaders they simply don't know what to do with the diversity of information, with the diversity of the sources of information."

What the leadership in Central Asia is coming to understand very well is how to deal with newer forms of spreading information. We have seen time and again that, during times of crises in Central Asia, authorities block websites and order mobile phone providers to cut connections.

But radio, the old medium, can still get through the old defenses of radio jamming.

"I would say the role of foreign radio stations, foreign broadcasters today is getting even more and more important, even maybe more important than in the Soviet era," Babakhanov suggested, "because we see the situation is getting worse in some of our countries and in such a hostile environment, for example, in Tajikistan, it's almost impossible today to express some critical materials about the government, about the situation."

Beshimov said, "Radio is still an effective source of information and how it reaches people, how it touches their thinking, is really still very effective and I think it still will be."

The panel talked much more about the role of radio in Central Asia. I certainly enjoyed listening to their reminiscences about the importance of foreign radio in the past and I appreciated their insight into what radio can do for Central Asia today and tomorrow.

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