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Central Asia in Focus: Governments Tighten Shackles on Independent Media

State of press freedom in Central Asia, coming water crisis, resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan, and more.

Microphone with Azattyk logo in Bishkek City Court, Kyrgyzstan, on Feb. 2, 2023. Gulzhan Turdubaeva (RFE/RL).
Microphone with Azattyk logo in Bishkek City Court, Kyrgyzstan, on Feb. 2, 2023. Gulzhan Turdubaeva (RFE/RL).

What’s Happening in the Region

Governments Tighten Shackles on Independent Media in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

Independent media in Central Asia has always faced problems and often, authorities in the region have neutralized or eliminated many outlets.

The two relatively bright spots for media freedom in Central Asian states have been Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan.

That is changing.

Kyrgyzstan’s government has been escalating the campaign against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk.

On April 27, in what Amnesty International called “a blow to media freedom” and the Committee to Protect Journalists said sent “a deeply chilling message,” a Kyrgyz court ordered Azattyk‘s license should be revoked.

Azattyk is appealing that decision and continues to operate.

The court ruling came less than a week before World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

In late October 2022, the Culture Ministry blocked Azattyk’s websites for refusing to remove a video about the September Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes.

Azattyk’s bank account was then frozen.

Kyrgyz authorities have been tightening the noose on independent media since early 2022.

Bolot Temirov and his Temirov Live program on YouTube often reported on corrupt officials and their families.

The office of Temirov Live was raided in January 2022, and in November, Temirov was convicted of forgery and deported to Russia.

Also in January 2022, the prosecutor general’s office investigated Kaktus Media for alleged “war propaganda” after Kaktus reposted a report from Tajikistan’s independent outlet Asia-Plus about the April 2021 Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes.

In January 2023, the Culture Ministry threatened to block the website of independent site Kloop, if Kloop did not remove an article on a state agency inflating construction costs.

As for Kazakhstan, a recent report from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) said authorities are “throttling” the websites of RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, known locally as Azattyq.

The practical implication of throttling is that the targeted websites are blocked.

The throttling in Kazakhstan started in September 2022 but was ongoing through presidential and parliamentary elections.

OONI concluded this consistent problem over the course of months was the likely result of intentional interference.

Why it’s Important: There are serious social and political problems in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

It appears the governments want to be solely in control of the narrative of events inside their countries and are taking measures against independent media.

Azattyq and Azattyk are among the leading independent media outlets in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Whatever happens to them will be easier for authorities to do to other independent media outlets in both countries.

The Coming Water Crisis in Central Asia

Uzbekistan’s Deputy Minister of Water Management Azimjon Nazarov said at an April 27-28 investment forum in Tashkent that the country will be short some seven billion cubic meters of annual water use by 2030.

Nazarov noted that is a 25 percent reduction in the amount of water Uzbekistan currently uses.

That was not the only grim forecast at the forum.

Michael Wimmer, from the Economic Cooperation Department at Germany’s Embassy in Uzbekistan, told the forum that the glaciers in Tajikistan will be completely melted in 30 to 40 years.

Those glaciers feed Central Asia’s two main rivers – the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya.

Wimmer said sometime around 2050, the water levels would rise in the Amu-Darya that brings water to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan, but after peaking, there would be a steady and irreversible reduction.

recent article from Bloomberg dealt with another consequence of water shortages that has already been seen in Central Asia – water theft.

The article focused on water theft in Monterrey, Mexico.

Water shortages in the region led people to start digging illegal wells and diverting water from rivers to their own agricultural lands.

Officials were met with hostility when they came to inspect the reasons for the reductions in water flow.

It also created an illegal water industry where people stole water from the city’s water supply, loading it on tankers and selling “water on the black market for many times the price of what it cost from the utility.”

During the Central Asian drought of 2021, farmers in Kyrgyzstan’s Chiu province were diverting water from the canal system into their fields and siphoning water from local reservoirs.

Provincial authorities had to station guards along canals and at reservoirs to prevent water theft.

Why it’s Important: Water has always been the most important commodity in Central Asia.

It was 125 years ago when the region’s population was eight million people.

Water is even more important now as Central Asia’s population approaches 80 million.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan’s gold mining industry.

A recent report from the Oxus Society examines resource nationalism and how officials sometimes portray themselves as protectors of the environment yet disingenuously pledge to use the resources of the country for the good of the people.

This week’s guests are the authors of the Oxus Society report:

What I’m Following

Ferghana Valley Border Talks

Representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met in Batken, Kyrgyzstan from April 25-29 to discuss border demarcation efforts along their common frontiers.

The area where the three countries meet in the Ferghana Valley has been a flashpoint for problems among the three countries since 1991 independence, usually over problems marking the border.

Meetings with representatives of all three countries are rare, so it’s worth following any progress they make.

Fact of the Week

The first-ever shipment of liquified petroleum gas from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan arrived on April 28.

One Year of Central Asia in Focus

This week, we’re marking the one-year anniversary of the Central Asia in Focus newsletter and I wanted to thank all our readers.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by responding to this email, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you.

See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,