Today is Thanksgiving, but not in Kyrgyzstan. There are no big tables of food and overstuffed bellies—this is one of the poorest countries in Asia. No one is counting their blessings because actually most people had more freedom before the latest regime, which has adopted Russia's media laws and even managed to make them stricter.
Bolot Temirov, above, is one of the most famous journalists in this country. Earlier this year, police tried to set him up with a planted bag of cannabis (still highly illegal here.) They charged him with using false documents to apply for a Kyrgyz passport. (Bolot is Kyrgyz). He also has a Russian passport because that's where the went to university.
He seemed to get out of all that mess but then one court appealed the decision of another court, and it spelled a dangerous situation for Bolot. "The prosecutor wants to send me to prison for seven years or I leave the country," he told me. The night before he was due to appear in court, he texted me to say "I don't think they are taking me to jail." And they didn't. But they continued the hearing to yesterday and that's when everything changed.
Bolot, 43, was dragged from court by police, and flown to Moscow. He has a wife and an 11-year-old son here. He has a team of reporters here. According to Bolot's lawyer quoted in one of the local media sites, Bolot's expulsion is forever.
A native of Kyrgyzstan is deported to Russia.
Radio Europe's Kyrgyz site, known at Radio Azattyq, for two months. That means unless you have a VPN, you're not going to be able to see or read stories on that website. The Kyrgyz government did this citing that Azattyq had published false information after it reported stories about a conflict with neighboring Tajikistan that was not favorable to Kyrgyzstan. Then the government froze all the bank accounts of Azattyq. Reporters have not been paid for weeks.
In addition, several journalists have been arrested, including a woman who is pregnant and had to be rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile, the government is trying to push through a draconian media law that would require news websites to register with the government and make news organization list which foreign governments—read Western grants—are giving them money.
There was a rally in support of independent media the day after the rally to shut them down. But for the most part it seems journalists are in retreat, afraid to say anything publicly for fear that the government will retaliate. Anyone who has battled with the government knows silence is not the way to combat a bully. The best leverage journalists have in the face of a crackdown is to speak up and explain to the public how limiting press freedoms affects their access to information.
It's been awhile. Since I arrived in Kazakhstan—the world's ninth largest country—in late June, I've clocked more than 20,000 kilometers traveling this country. That's 12,427 miles, the equivalent of traveling from the farthest point east in the U.S. to the farther point west in the U.S.— four times.
During much of that time, I've had officers from the Kazakhstan's Security Committee, KNB, following me. Then, after I published a couple of breaking news stories, the Kazakh government complained to the U.S. Embassy that I was working as a journalist without the government's approval. In Kazakhstan, only journalists accredited by the government can publish, a major workaround the "free speech" that the government claims its citizens have. I was in Kazakhstan as a Fulbright Scholar researching media suppression. I found plenty. But the Kazakhstan didn't want me publishing that repression, at least not while I was in country.
So that's why you haven't heard much.
Generally I prefer to travel low on the radar when I'm doing research. But within days of arriving in Kazakhstan, the first journalist I was scheduled to interview ended up arrested and in jail hours hours after we'd texted. Of course I wrote and followed the story. You can read all about that here.
While it's true that Kazakhstan citizens and journalists have more freedom, it's an incremental amount compared to citizens of Uzbekistan. Kazakh journalists must still received accreditation, the same as in Uzbekistan. I met some journalists who had been denied this bureaucratic approval, and it precluded them working openly as journalists. They are denied access to government press conferences. They can't interview anyone with government ministries. There's a palpable fear present even for those who are accredited by the government. There's always the chance that each year when a journalist has to apply for approval they won't receive it. And if the government doesn't like what a journalist writes, that reporter will receive retribution. Sometimes that means getting hauled into a police station and questioned for hours. Most of the time, it means being arrested for something the reporter didn't do, like narcotics or child pornography or tax evasion.
I found journalists in Kazakhstan slightly braver than their brethren in Uzbekistan. Most journalists in Kazakhstan work for state-sponsored media. Those reporters are told what to write and are never allowed to question anything publicly. That's why it's so important to have independent media, like Azattyq—the U.S. sponsored outlet of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe. That became incredibly apparent during the Blood January protests when state media largely ignored what was going on. After the tear gas and shock grenades cleared, it was up to independent journalists to explain what had happened in their country that left 238 dead and 10,000 in police custody.
People have asked my husband and I what we found different in tourist attractions between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. While Uzbekistan awed us with its fifth century antiquities, especially the amazing turquoise-colored madrassas of Samarkand and Bukhara, Kazakhstan offered a different kind of awe-inspiring views in its unique nature. There are mountains and canyons—several that beat the Grand Canyon in the U.S. for their panoramic views (like Bozzhira pictured above)—and there are the vast Kansas-like Steppe lands, lakes, and seas—the Aral Sea, which is drying up, and the Caspian Sea.
Now that I'm out of Kazakhstan, I'm working on a six-part series to be published soon. Stay tuned. I look forward to more adventures in Kyrgyzstan.
ZHANAOZEN, KAZAKHSTAN: Nurlyek Nurgaliyev may be one of Kazakhstan’s most famous activists—he survived a police shooting during the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre. But he was not among those who started the January protests that spread across this country, resulting in 238 deaths and more than 10,000 people detained by police.
“They were just usual guys who started it,” he said in his deep voice, the result of the bullet that pierced his vocal chords and circled his heart for a month before doctors were able to extract it. There was a touch of envy in that bass voice. He had been protesting, getting arrested, and imprisoned over rising gas prices in Zhanaozen for years. This had been his issue. He’d even had a meeting with the regional mayor a year ago, he said, where he advocated the price should be no more than 50 Tenge “because we are literally sitting on the gas.”
Nurgaliyev drives a water truck for the oil companies but he is also an activist who is detained on average seven times a year. In the past two years, he has been imprisoned three times for his protests on the gas situation. The first time he received a 10-day administrative sentence. The second time it was 15 days and the third time was 20 days, according to court papers he showed me.
But on Jan. 1, several local guys—not the usual activists—made a video complaining that gas prices had doubled in Zhanaozen, from 60 Tenge a liter to 120 Tenge a liter, and announced they were going to have a “meeting”—the English word used in Kazakhstan to mean protest. The men posted the video on YouTube and WhatsApp, which is where Nurgaliyev saw it.
So at 9 a.m. on Jan. 2, Nurgaliyev showed up at the city roundabout in front of the regional mayor’s office. The crowds swelled throughout the day and closed the roads. Several yurts were erected. He and other protesters characterized the protests that went on for six days as peaceful. There were a couple of police cars the first two days, but the officers just watched and then they were gone, he said.
“We started wondering why they were gone. It was unusual. Normally they detain us,” he said.
Zhanaozen is a dusty, desert town in western Kazakhstan about 90 miles from the Caspian Sea. Home to 150,000 residents, Zhanaozen (pronounced JA-NA-OO-ZEN) was mostly known for its rich oil fields and the oil workers' strike in 2011 that turned violent when police started shooting. The official death toll is 15, but protesters and their families insist that the real total is about 100.
Nurgliyev and others say there are no independent media in Zhanaozen. News of the protest spread through the country via social media by ordinary citizens and bloggers who posted photos and videos online. On Jan. 3, Saniya Toiken, a reporter from Azattyq—the Kazakhstan website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty —arrived in Zhanaozen.
Those videos show people bundled up in winter coats huddled together as they listened to speakers standing on a small platform near the town’s sculpture of a black snow leopard with golden wings. In the background is a building with a three-story-high mural of the famous Kazakh writer Abai with the words “Keep your intelligence, courage and head together and then you will be different from the crowd.”
Each day the crowds swelled and each night a group of young men wearing covid masks showed up trying to provoke violence. Nurgaliyev said the old men told them to go away.
“I was surprised by how organized the protest was, how quiet and polite people were,” he said. Speakers at the protest were provided a microphone by the mayor, he pointed out.
As the protest continued, a negotiation ensued between the government and protesters. Nurgaliyev said he was one of four protesters at this negotiation table. The protesters' requirement was that no one would be questioned or detained by police for their participation; no one would be prosecuted; gas workers who left their jobs to protest wouldn’t lose their jobs and would still be paid. The government and the gas company met the demands and the protest ended January 8 about 2 p.m.
"I wanted people to show up for protests for so long," he said. "We couldn't get people to go. Now I'm glad the January protests happened."
It's been a few weeks since I left Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, and ventured into the regions of this ninth-largest country in the world. In three weeks, I have traveled 9,821 kilometers or 6,102 miles and interviewed more than 20 journalists. [Since my arrival in Kazakhstan two months ago, I have conducted 30 interviews.]
After seven flights, one train journey and three road trips in the various regions, I have a better understanding of what happened in this country when residents took to the streets to protest gas prices and government corruption. Dozens of journalists were detained, imprisoned, and, in some cases, tortured. But they fared better than their countrymen: 238 who were killed by government bullets or tortured in custody.
For most of these journalists, this was not the first time they'd been dragged into a police station for covering a protest. They knew what to do, how to protect their photos, how to demand official documentation for their detention, how to request an attorney and how to insist on bureaucratic formalities that most Kazakhstan citizens are unaware of.
While many accounts of the January protests were recorded by citizens themselves—this protest was started by social media—many of the official accounts of what happened in January were documented by brave, independent journalists. These are some of the faces of those who have told me their stories.
Through my travels, especially in the regions, I've been trailed by the KNB—Kazakhstan's version of the KGB. At one point I confronted one agent who was not very good at hiding his "secret" filming of me and the journalist I was interviewing. He didn't deny what he was doing and shortly later he left the area. The journalists seemed unfazed by this blatant spying.
A couple weeks ago, the Kazakhstan government complained to the U.S. Embassy here because I had published two stories about the arrest of blogger Makhambet Abzhan. I am here as a journalist Fulbright scholar doing interviews. I'm not here under a journalist visa. Journalists here are licensed and documented by the government. I normally don't publish my research until I'm finished. But, hey, Makhambet wrote me a two-page confession from prison!
Soon I hope to introduce you to these journalists' personal stories.
It's always painful to me when a journalist admits he took money for a story. While this is highly unusual in the Western media, it happens quite often in post-Soviet countries, especially in Central Asia. The problem is arising now from a clash of cultures. While old style media is on the downward slide, a new style of blogging from amateurs is increasingly popular. These bloggers have no training as journalists. Many I've interviewed aren't interested in journalism ethics. They see no problem with taking money to support their work.
But in several notable cases, Otabek Satoriy in Uzbekistan and now Makhambet Abzhan in Kazakhstan, taking money has put these amateur journalists/bloggers in severe jeopardy. Satoriy is already serving six years in prison. And though when he was initially arrested there was a large outcry that this was a muckraking journalist who was being suppressed by the government, eventually his unethical practices caused the media to turn the other way and drop support. Now, in Makhambet Abzhan's case, a similar situation is happening.
This is where I like to point out that old adage that if something appears to be too good, it probably is. I think Abzhan wanted to believe he'd won the lottery with this proposition. Instead he garnered a jail cell. Now, in order to free himself, he has to confess to his unethical practices. As his attorney says, “This is a case of a journalist who was being unethical. But it is not a criminal case. Abzhan did not extort.”
That argument may work in court. But it won't earn him supporters in the journalism community in Kazakhstan. This morning I corresponded with an editor of one of Kazakhstan's independent media outlets. The journalist told me that his outlet probably won't cover Abzhan's case anymore.
"It looked like the authoritarian regime was trying to repress an independent journalist," the editor said. "Now it is a completely different story."
I feel sorry for Abzhan. I feel sorry for his family, especially the woman he just married a month ago but whose marriage has not been officially registered. I suppose Abzhan felt he needed to come clean about what had happened. And if the proposal came from the businessman and not Abzhan, there isn't a criminal case. At this point, I'm sure Abzhan is more concerned about facing a possible eight years in prison. He's not thinking of how to restore his image as a journalist. That will come later.
What other ethical journalists tell me is that cases such as Abzhan's make it harder for them to get the public to trust them. It makes their jobs that much harder in a place where getting people to speak out is hard enough as it is.
I hope Abzhan is released from prison. And I also hope his case might be a warning to other bloggers who take money and see nothing wrong with their actions.
July 4: American Independence Day
I've been in Kazakhstan for five days. The first journalist I contacted is Makhambet Abzhan, a freelancer and popular blogger in Nur-Sultan, the capital where my husband and I are staying for the next month. I was eager to meet Abzhan because he was one of the journalists who covered the protests in Kazakhstan in January in which more than 227 people were killed. Many journalists who covered the riots were arrested and detained. Abzhan disappeared for a week after the government accused him of igniting one of the riots.
We agreed to meet on July 5 at a popular cafe. But on Monday, July 4, I discover that Abzhan has been arrested and is sitting in a Nur-Sultan jail on suspicion of extorting the equivalent of $107,000 from a wealthy businessman not to publish damaging information about him. I call Xeniya, my translator. She, my husband, Greg, and I rush off in a cab to a court house on the other side of the city. But when we arrive we are told that the government has changed the courthouse to one on the outskirts of the city —the exact opposite of where we are. It takes us half an hour to get there.
When we arrive we learn the hearing has been delayed. Abzhan has insisted on appearing physically in court instead of virtually. Also holding up the hearing is that the government wants Abzhan's attorney to sign an agreement not to discuss the case publicly. Who ever heard of such a thing? He refuses.
I interview Abzhan's attorney, his wife of three weeks, his attorney, and his supporters. No one can believe that Abzhan would ever extort money. So far this year he has prevailed in two court cases against him.
Using the courts and charging journalists with crimes unrelated to their journalism is the most popular tactic in Kazakhstan to intimidate and silence reporters. The government tries to shame journalists into silence by charging them with pornography or tax evasion or theft—or extortion.
Abzhan's hearing is rescheduled for the next day, July 5. That hearing lasts over three hours. The outcome is that the government has decided to keep Abzhan in jail for two months while it investigates the charges against him. Except it's unclear if the government has actually formally charged Abzhan.
I update my story and go back and forth with the editor at midnight. Finally the story appears online. You can read it here.
It was a day on the Chesapeake Bay. Navbahor Imamova and her film crew from Voice of America came to Northumberland County, Virginia, population 12,000, to spend the day recording an interview with me and taping Imamova's weekly news roundup. The result is an in-depth interview that takes viewers through my home, onto my dock and to the nearby beach at Hughlett's Point, a protected beach along the Chesapeake Bay.
Imamova and I first met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in mid-March, shortly after I'd arrived as a Fulbright Scholar. We spent three hours talking that first time and then went on to engage in multiple Telegram chats. Imamova is a wealth of information. She started her journalism career in Uzbekistan, and for the past twenty years has covered Central Asia for Voice of America.
From the time I landed in Tashkent, I continued to hear from journalists and people at the U.S. Embassy that I absolutely had to talk to Imamova. And when I did, I understood why so many people inside Uzbekistan and out think so highly of her.
That first chat, we had so much to talk about. I was in Uzbekistan to interview Uzbekistani journalists and determine what were the biggest challenges. Imamova offered her expertise and connected me with many journalists. I am deeply in debt to her for her assistance. Anyone paying attention to these pages knows that I found some very disturbing patterns with State Security Services (SSS) threatening, intimidating and forcing journalists to delete stories.
Check out the interview here. Even if you just watch the film with the sound down, the video captures the beautiful landscape of coastal Virginia. Imamova and her team did an amazing job.
My quest to secure an interview with the State Security Services (SSS) in Uzbekistan is a story of the hunted becoming the hunter.
One of my favorite Soviet era paintings from the Savistky collection of avant-garde art in Nukus, Uzbekistan is the 1971 "Hunter" by N.M. Nedbaylo, a Ukrainian.
As a U.S. Fulbright Scholar researching the media in Uzbekistan, I have interviewed nearly 35 journalists, bloggers and media monitors. Nearly all of them say the No. 1 threat to reporting the truth in this country is the State Security Services (SSS). They claim the SSS, or what some call the “secret police,” routinely threaten harm to their families if they don’t delete stories and stop covering certain topics, like government corruption.
Just the idea of having to deal with the SSS elicits so much fear and trepidation that journalists self-censor and don’t even try to report stories that people here need to know. I have found journalists in Uzbekistan much more timid than other post-Soviet countries where the media laws are far more restrictive.
When I asked why this was the case, Tashanov Abdurakhmon, chairman of the Ezgulik, Uzbekistan’s human rights agency told me: “When the government becomes more a bully, the people become more slaves. When the treatment becomes more harsh and more severe, the people become more timid and more abiding of authority, like North Korea.”
One of the tenets of sound journalism is hearing what the other side has to say. It’s called being fair and balanced. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to talk with the SSS for a couple of weeks about these allegations of threats and intimidations.
But the SSS is ignoring me.
I feel like Michael Moore in his famous movie Roger & Me in which he tries to get an interview with General Motor’s Chairman Roger Smith. He follows him around the country, stakes out places Smith will be, but he can never get an interview.
My host during my 2.5 month stay in Uzbekistan is The Agency for Information and Mass Communication, a government media monitoring agency, which one would think would easily be able to help me set up an interview with the SSS, another kind of monitoring agency.
Tukhtasin Ghaybullayev is my contact there. On May 9, more than 10 days ago, I started asking him for help. Ghaybullayev finally told me I’d need to ask the U.S. Embassy to write a letter on my behalf to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When I asked the Embassy if they could write such a letter, they said they’d never been asked to write a letter verifying the identity of an independent journalist and didn’t want to start such a precedent.
I agreed. Why should the U.S. Embassy get involved with securing interviews for journalists? I don’t work for the U.S. government. I sent Ghaybullayev a copy of my international press credentials and insisted that these should be good enough. But he wouldn’t budge.
Then I turned to Komil Allamjonov, head of Public Foundation for Support and Development of the National Mass Media, and asked if he could help me.
“No one has actually asked me before to help them get an interview with the secret service,” Allamjonov said. “It’s a secret service. It’s name is 'secret service' you know,” he said laughing. "What they do is secret."
Allamjonov said my contact at The Agency should contact the SSS’s press agent. But Ghaybullayev insisted he had no way to contact anyone at the SSS.
I found this to be incredulous, particularly since The Agency had made a big deal to me that the government had installed press agents at all government organizations, and those agents were ordered to respond to requests within 24 hours. Surely they would know how to make contact. But my texts to Ghaybullayev went unanswered.
So I thought maybe I could contact the SSS directly. I asked journalists who had frequently been contacted by the SSS if they could reach out and ask how I could secure an interview.
“Why do you want to interview them?” One journalist after another asked. They all thought my request unusual. A few said they sent notes to people at the SSS, but no one heard back. One journalist told me I needed to write an article that would draw the SSS’s attention.
So that’s what I’m doing. When I wrote an article about the SSS for Qalampir, the editor told me he couldn’t print a story that mentioned the SSS. So maybe the fact that I’ve been writing SSS many times in this piece will get their attention.
One person jokingly told me the SSS doesn’t come out during the day. “They are like vampires,” he said. “They don’t like the light. They thrive in the dark.”
Despite his admonition, he did give me a phone number that he found listed online for the SSS (see above photo, translated by Google Translate.) “No one ever answers,” he warned.
I dialed the number. After two rings, a recording picked up. It was of a man’s voice telling me in English that the person couldn’t come to the phone and to call back later. I tried several times, over several different days. It was always the same recording. But why was it in English since I was dialing an Uzbekistan number from an Uzbekistan number?
So back to The Agency. This time I just showed up at their offices. Maybe Ghaybullayev would stop ignoring me if I planted myself and refused to leave. You know, something like a sit-in protest.
After several minutes of sitting in the Agency offices, Ghaybullayev showed up with another Agency official who spoke English and could translate. (Why would the Agency pair me with a guy who couldn’t speak English?) Ghaybullayev stuck to his line. The Embassy had to write a letter. That was the only way.
Finally, when he saw I wasn’t going to leave, he suggested I write my own letter. And so I did. I emailed that letter to Norov Vladimir Imamovich, Uzbekistan’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. Still no word.
Then yesterday I had an interview with the head of the journalists union, Olimjon Usarov. He asked me why I hadn’t interviewed the SSS since so many of my findings involved that government agency. I detailed my quest and how I’d been asking for the interview for nearly two weeks. Usarov said he would try to help me.
I’m still waiting. Hello Mr. SSS, are you listening?
Meet Katerina Andreeva, one of the bravest journalists in all of the post-Soviet autocracies. Currently, Andreeva and her colleague, videographer Daria Chultsova, are serving the final six months of a two-year sentence in a prison colony for live-streaming a protest in Minsk in November of 2020. Because of the ludicrous nature of the charges and the "investigation," Andreeva defiantly asked the judge after hearing the verdict: “Why didn’t you give us 25 years?”
But last month, the Belarusian government handed down another charge against Andreeva. This time the charge is for treason and she now faces a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years. It's believed these charges are in relation to stories she reported about Belarusian soldiers for hire who fought in Donbas in Ukraine.
The KGB conducted the investigation into these mysterious treason charges, Andreeva's husband, journalist Igor Ilyash, told me. He said the court will be closed and lawyers are not even allowed to tell him or Andreeva's family members the circumstances surrounding the charges. He's not even sure when the court will hear the case.
I met Andreeva in the summer of 2018 while working on a story about retaliations against journalists in Belarus. The story was later published in the Washington Post. Then 24, Andreeva had already been detained twice by the police. Once she was strip-searched and falsely accused of hiding a camera in a crevice of her body. She showed me the stories about the Belarusian soldiers fighting in Donbas. Andreeva started reporting these stories back in 2017. So it seems strange that only now the government is coming after her for these reports. Or is it to send a message to other reporters not to report about Belarus's involvement in Russian's war in Ukraine?
“The most dangerous thing you can do in Belarus is investigative reporting,” Andreeva told me then. But she refused to back down. Even as we spoke, a KGB officer was sitting across from us at a restaurant. His table spare, the guy wasn't even trying to hide the fact he was spying on us. Andreeva said he'd been following us since we left her apartment. She was used to such harassment by then. "I'm ready to go to prison if I have to," she told me.
After our hours-long conversation, I told my husband that the Belarusian government would likely try to quash such defiance and determination.
I've been thinking of Andreeva a lot these days. I've spent the last seven weeks in Uzbekistan interviewing journalists and bloggers here. In contrast to Belarus which has 19 journalists in prison, there are no journalists in prison here. But the fear and intimidation expressed by Uzbekistani journalists is palpable. Most are afraid to say anything that might draw attention to themselves. A few brave ones are defiant and tired of self-censoring. Most simply comply with government censors and then lie about it to the public—making up stories for why their website was off line for days or why their coverage of the war in Ukraine has suddenly gone from neutral to nothing but Russian propaganda.
When I complain about such cowardice, I'm told that I must understand that these journalists have families and these editors have employees and they are just trying to protect them. But why even be a journalist if you don't have the stomach to face intimidation and harassment?
When journalists excuse other journalists' passivity here, I think of Andreeva, who at 28 is facing 15 years in prison. If that happens, her youth and any chance of a family will be taken from her. I think of the other 18 journalists in prison in Belarus, the 24 journalists in prison in Russia, the 26 journalists in prison in Turkey and the three journalists who are in prison in Azerbaijan.
The first rule of journalism is: Question authority. Unfortunately, not much of that is happening in Uzbekistan.
Forever a Nomad
I'm a Fulbright Scholar with the U.S. State Department in post-Soviet Central Asia. My previous Fulbright was in Ukraine. I report on journalists from post-Soviet states who are retaliated for reporting the truth.