(WASHINGTON - May 2, 2019) A series of incidents interfering with the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists in Kazakhstan yesterday illustrates that authorities around the world will act without restraint in their efforts to control information, and that even for the most intrepid journalists, security and safety are under constant threat.
“RFE/RL has been reporting in many high-risk countries for decades, and it has never been easy. But increasingly brazen actions by governments and impunity for attackers compound the challenges and the risks our journalists face,” said RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar in comments marking World Press Freedom Day. “I salute their remarkable courage and persistence, and their determination to continue reporting the news for audiences that need it most.”
RFE/RL correspondent Saniya Toiken was held for questioning by police in Kazakhstan’s newly named capital city Nur-Sultan after she sought information at the police station about dozens of persons who were detained at May 1 protests during which demonstrators called for the release of political prisoners and a boycott of the country’s June 9 presidential election. Toiken’s phone, which was later returned, had been seized by unknown persons earlier in the day.
Before the protests began, a car belonging to RFE/RL cameraman Yerzhan Amirkhanov was broken into and his camera was stolen. After he reported the theft, police detained him, taking his fingerprints and questioning him for several hours, causing him to miss the assignment. The car of a second cameraman sent to cover the demonstrations, Timur Aitmukhanbetov, was blocked by another vehicle in an uncrowded parking lot the same morning.
Yesterday’s detention was the fourth this year for Toiken, a recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2017 Courage in Journalism Award. She has been harassed repeatedly by authorities in connection with her reporting of labor protests in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen.
For RFE/RL reporters in other countries, the situation is even more prohibitive.
In Afghanistan, where RFE/RL lost three of its colleagues one year ago in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul targeting journalists, its reporters continue to work despite conditions of routine violence, while fearing that a proposed power-sharing deal with the Taliban could reverse the hard-fought, but fragile, media pluralism the country has attained.
In neighboring Pakistan, RFE/RL’s Islamabad bureau remains closed, 15 months after the country’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency accused it of airing programs “against the interest of Pakistan.” The Pashto-language service has since reorganized, and continues to provide record audiences with a powerful alternative to extremist propaganda in the tribal regions along the Afghan border.
In Ukraine, where RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service recently earned millions of views for its standout coverage of the country’s presidential election, investigative journalists face increasing surveillance and harassment by government officials and oligarchs. At the same time, Russia-backed authorities have taken steps to sideline and silence RFE/RL contributors in forcibly annexed Crimea. In eastern Ukraine, blogger Stanislav Aseyev has been held incommunicado for nearly two years after being detained by Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk.
A criminal investigation against RFE/RL Russian Service contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva in connection with a radio commentary she gave about a suicide bombing last year corroborates a new report, titled The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: Advancing A Political Agenda By Crushing Dissent, which documents Russia’s use of an “ever-increasing array of laws” to intimidate critics and criminalize free speech. Russia’s proposal to adopt a Chinese-like Internet model has raised concerns that such a “sovereign Internet” would bolster the country’s penal structure by enabling authorities to censor opinion and information online.
In one of the day’s most quoted reports on press freedom, Reporters Without Borders relegated Turkmenistan, always ranked among the world’s most restrictive countries, to last place, behind even North Korea. RFE/RL has reported from Turkmenistan since 1953. In 2018, the UN held the Turkmen government responsible for the 2006 death in custody of RFE/RL contributor Ogulsapar Muradova.
Said Sindelar, “There is much talk this year about disinformation, which is useful, but in many places where we work, our journalists are fighting to defend the very fundamental role and rights of an independent press.”
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to 34 million people in 26 languages and 22 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed over 2.6 billion times on Facebook and YouTube in FY2018. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.