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  • The Media Landscape in Central Asia:Introduction to the Special Issue
  • Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle

The print and electronic media in Central Asia are both forum and battlefield for political agendas, economic interests, activist idealism, and pragmatic cynicism. Through their respective mass media, the establishments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan engage with their civil societies in a wide variety of communicative processes, ranging from genuine dialogue to unabashed censorship and from subtle manipulation to brutal pressure. The ongoing scuffles over access to media analyzed in this special issue of Demokratizatsiya demonstrate the significance attributed to media in these societies. The more illiberal a society, the more the control of its media is viewed as a condition for securing the overall status quo.

The power of media in shaping diverging world views gained momentum with the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and the structural role media played in influencing and reflecting public opinion, both in the West, in Ukraine, in Russia and in its neighboring states. The media situation in Central Asia is primarily shaped by the high level of political control exercised by state authorities and the limited plurality of public expression. Of course, the situation is drastically divergent inside the region itself, ranging from Turkmenistan, the most closed state of the former Soviet Union, often ranked on a par with North Korea and pre-opening Burma, to Kyrgyzstan, the most pluralist state among the five.

But over the last twenty years, several similar trends can be observed in all Central Asian media environments. Firstly, the ruling elites began to shape national media policies that are maximally independent from foreign influences (Russian, Western, Islamic) and represent and promote a national sociocultural consensus intended to ensure their continued domination. Secondly, growing segments of the population, and the young generation in particular, make increasing use of digital media that are harder to control than television and print media. The national establishments’ heightened [End Page 227] attention to their respective information environments is in part a reaction to experiences of the 1990s, including experiments with Western media models. Under those conditions, the “import model,” which is based on the expectation that Western values can be introduced through the formation of Western-educated media elites whose work will promote liberal values, has largely failed because the ruling elites in Central Asia are unwilling to passively permit such processes to unfold since they are bound to eventually undermine their own position.

The familiar low rankings of media freedom in Central Asia issued by Western agencies capture only a small part of these countries’ media landscape. Such ratings focus mostly on legal issues and limitations orchestrated by authoritarian regimes, as well as journalists’ rights, but do not take into consideration the other side of the coin, that of the audiences. They, therefore, are only able to capture a partial picture of the more complex set of roles played by media in Central Asian societies. Moreover, these indexes come with some conceptual limitations, including the assumption that freer media automatically create new support for democratization, whereas freer media can also give rise to “illiberal” ideologies and, in some cases, such as Kyrgyzstan, to a more vocal nationalism. To disentangle this complex interaction, several articles in this special issue discuss some unexpected aspects of the Central Asian media landscape, for instance the fact that a more open political competition in Kyrgyzstan resulted in lower trust in the media than in neighboring Kazakhstan, or that web-based news, often promoted in the West as an alternate source of information, negatively affected youth’s confidence in electoral processes.

Even if Central Asian authorities maintain firm control over national media, their oversight is not total. In some countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Russian media still dominate and play a critical role in molding local public opinion. A large number of people in these five republics are still bilingual; the older generation was brought up with the constant presence of Russian television, a factor which certainly yielded deep-ranging effects on the following generations as well. Russian has maintained its position as the lingua franca almost everywhere, regardless of various efforts to promote...