Central Asia: Coronavirus and the media

The corona crisis has prompted very little critical investigative journalism in Central Asia. Most media outlets limit themselves to regular updates on the number of cases and on the measures taken by governments. In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – two countries where the media are strictly controlled by the state – the authorities maintain that no cases of Covid-19 have yet been registered.

Kyrgyzstan: Restricted access to information

According to its constitution, Kyrgyzstan is a parliamentary democracy – the only one in a region in which authoritarian rule is the norm. This is also reflected in the media landscape: in comparison to the media in other Central Asian countries, the Kyrgyz media are more diverse and more willing to be critical of the government. However, the coronavirus pandemic also poses new challenges for the press in Kyrgyzstan.

In a report aired by the US-funded Russian-language television station Nastoyashchee Vremya, Dilya Yusupova – an investigative journalist with the independent news website Kaktus – described the difficulties of getting hold of information about the situation in Kyrgyzstan: “It’s difficult to find out anything about corona, as the government commission unfortunately publishes little information and official bodies do not respond to queries”. Yusupova added that many politicians and civil servants are currently simply unavailable.

At press conferences, journalists are not always allowed to ask questions, and even if they are, they often do not receive a response.

The government commission, which was set up to tackle the corona crisis, holds a press conference once a day. It also announces contradictory and sometimes even false information, for example about the temporary closure of a hospital in the city of Jalal-Abad. Half an hour after this announcement, the press spokesman issued a correction, saying that the hospital in question was in Osh, not Jalal-Abad. But by then this news item had already been published. At press conferences, journalists are not always allowed to ask questions, and even if they are, they often do not receive a response.

After the first corona cases in Kyrgyzstan were confirmed on 18 March, a state of emergency was declared in the capital Bishkek and several other places. Under the state of emergency, freedom of movement is severely restricted. Independent media in particular complain that they have not received accreditation allowing them to continue operating during the state of emergency and that their reporters have therefore not received passes enabling them to move freely about the city. But state media are also affected: the editor-in-chief of the television station Ala-Too-24 told Nastoyashchee Vremya that the evening news bulletin is now pre-recorded, as a curfew is in force from 8 o’clock onwards.

Kazakhstan: Some investigative reporting

In Kazakhstan as elsewhere, the amount of corona coverage has increased in line with the increase in confirmed cases. Since the first cases of Covid-19 were registered in Kazakhstan on 13 March, practically every new infection has been reported, and this tendency to log all cases occasionally has the effect of obscuring the bigger picture. Before the disease had spread to the entire country, new infections were reported for each region, city and sometimes even for individual city districts.

Margarita Bocharova, who works as a journalist for the news website New Reporter, is impressed at the way in which both Kazakh and Russian-language media in the country have managed to cover a remarkably wide range of topics and use many different formats in their reporting on the crisis. “The writers shed light on all areas of life affected by the declaration of the state of emergency: work, education, commerce, restaurants, beauty salons, sports, culture, public transport, public services, banks, etc.”, Bocharova wrote in an article for New Reporter. Doctors, political scientists and economists regularly have their say in interviews and expert columns.

Some critical voices have been raised, even on state media.

Kazakh journalists have also investigated how easy it is to undergo testing for the virus and have tried to establish how well Kazakhstan is prepared to deal with the pandemic. The government has been transparent in that it regularly publishes statistics on the number of intensive care beds, ventilators and tests performed. However, some critical voices have been raised, even on state media. For example, there has been extensive coverage of the case of a young female doctor who contracted Covid-19 during the course of her work and who had complained about a shortage of face-masks and other protective gear.

Visitor numbers for online media outlets show that articles offering practical advice are especially popular. “Who is still allowed outside during the state of emergency?”, “Which shops are open?” and “How do educational institutions work?” are among the questions that readers are particularly keen to find answers to.

Politicians are aware of people’s need for information too, and ministerial press conferences are now a regular occurrence. The media attention given to these conferences is a new thing in Kazakhstan, where in the past only the president and his predecessor received so much attention.

Articles on the impact of the lockdown measures – for example, stories about people who are now unemployed because they can no longer enter the sealed-off cities, or self-employed people whose businesses have folded – are also popular.

There has been an increase in fake news stories designed as clickbait. For example, one report claimed that 19 million people in Kazakhstan had been infected with the virus, despite the fact that the country has a population of only 18.5 million. There have been other reports claiming that Chinese flu remedies are effective against Covid-19, and interviews have been published in which claims have been made that Kazakhs are particularly resistant to the disease.

Uzbekistan: No need to panic…

Although the Uzbek media began to take note of the emergence of coronavirus in January, the first reports underplayed the risk represented by the virus, despite the news then coming out of China. This did not change until February, after the WHO had declared an international health emergency.

At this point, the main angle was the return of Uzbek citizens from countries that were particularly badly affected by the pandemic. News stories about Covid-19 began to appear more regularly and the government issued its own updates on the situation.

After Kazakhstan confirmed its first cases of Covid-19 on 13 March, reports began to circulate on social media that there were also cases of coronavirus infection in Uzbekistan, but that the government was hiding these. The first officially confirmed case was announced on 15 March. While up to that point the Uzbek media had given no more than an overview of the situation, from then on practically every new confirmed case made the headlines.

The steps taken by the government are presented in a positive light.

The Uzbek media in general adopt a measured tone when reporting on the coronavirus crisis, in an effort to avoid panic. The steps taken by the government are presented in a positive light, and there is hardly any attempt to ask awkward questions.

The protection of personal data and privacy has become an issue. At first, the Uzbek media published the names of those infected, which led to them being stigmatised. The Minister of Health made the situation even worse when he accused those who had the virus of wanting to infect the rest of the population, going so far as to call them criminals.

For many journalists, the main source of information is a Telegram channel set up by the Ministry of Health, which publishes up-to-date information on the spread of the virus in the country. In addition to giving the numbers of those infected, it also publicises the steps taken by the government to combat the virus. Another channel has been launched to alert Uzbek citizens to the existence of fake news reports.

As befits the most populous country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan has one of the largest media markets. It lacks diversity, though. Both Russian- and Uzbek-language media publish very similar material. Gazeta.uz, one of the better online media outlets in the country in terms of quality, regularly publishes expert columns on the virus and its impact. However, the printed press has been hit hard by the economic repercussions of the crisis. The advertising market has collapsed and several newspapers and magazines are threatened with closure.

Tajikistan: Tuberculosis again?

The first reports on the novel coronavirus appeared in the Tajik media as early as January. However, despite the fact that China borders Tajikistan to the east, since the beginning of March the Tajik authorities have released very little information on the situation to the media. The lack of real information has given rise to a number of fake news reports. There is also a shortage of experts such as virologists who might be willing to talk to the media.

Even before the coronavirus crisis erupted, conditions for Tajik journalists were difficult. The authorities discourage critical reporting and interfere in editorial content. Telephone calls from the Tajik secret service, interrogation sessions, intimidation and blackmail are all part of the daily routine of independent journalists.

Not a single case of Covid-19 has been officially confirmed in Tajikistan.

To date, not a single case of Covid-19 has been officially confirmed in Tajikistan, though more than 7,000 people have been automatically quarantined on arrival from other countries. On 17 March, the still young medium Your.tj published a story about a pregnant woman who was quarantined on arrival from the United States. The woman complained that she was being kept in unhygienic conditions in a Soviet-era convalescent home, where she said there was a shortage of drinking water.

Not long after this, the woman posted on social media that after the publication of the Your.tj article, she had been moved to another room and conditions had improved. According to Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language service of the US-funded Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe (RFE/RL), criticism in the media has led to improved quarantine conditions for almost 500 people.

Radio Ozodi also reported that there had been panic-buying and looting of food shops. As a result, the government issued a statement saying that there was enough food in the country to feed the population for two years. However, many Tajik media subsequently reported enormous price rises for basic foodstuffs such as flour and potatoes. In addition, widespread talk of the “Chinese coronavirus” in Tajikistan has led to boycotts of Chinese shops and restaurants and discrimination against Chinese people.

Though the World Health Organization has warned against holding mass events, the Tajik government pressed ahead with plans for celebrating the Nowruz spring festival in the second half of March. A number of questions about this event have yet to be answered. State media reported extensively on the celebrations, while most independent outlets said very little about them.

In general, the Tajik media avoid engaging in direct criticism of the government, preferring a more subtle approach. The independent media group ASIA-Plus recently headlined an article on its website: “And tuberculosis again?! Resident of Shahriston district dies. His relatives taken under quarantine”. The article quoted a local health official as saying that of the large number of people now released from quarantine, “none of them had the coronavirus”. And the cause of death of all patients who have succumbed to coronavirus-like symptoms has been given as conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and heart failure.

Turkmenistan: News ‘black hole’

Like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan has no officially confirmed cases of Covid-19. The official explanation is that Turkmenistan reacted early to the spread of the coronavirus and closed its borders in February, but experts have expressed doubts over this account.

Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated countries in the world. It is also an authoritarian state without any independent media. In 2019, it was ranked last in the annual press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In the 2020 index, Turkmenistan ceded the dubious distinction of last place to North Korea but still occupies the second-from-last place. It has been described by RSF as an “ever-expanding news ‘black hole’” in which all media are controlled by the government and the few independent journalists who work clandestinely for media outlets based abroad are routinely harassed, arrested and tortured.

The Turkmen media’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis is mainly focused on the international situation, steps taken by the government and tips on how to protect yourself against viruses in general. There is a handful of nominally privately run media outlets in Turkmenistan, but these obediently follow the government line and mostly only reproduce the output of the state news agency TDH.

The only critical Turkmen media – such as RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Azatlyk, the Dutch-based Alternative Turkmenistan News or the Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan – are based outside the country. According to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, there were at least seven confirmed cases of Covid-19 in a quarantine camp in the northeast of the country in mid-April. The authorities have so far remained silent about this.

The lack of reliable independent news sources within the country means that Turkmenistan often becomes the subject of fake news. In mid-March, reports were circulating that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov had banned the use of the word “coronavirus” by the Turkmen media. This turned out not to be true, but because of Turkmenistan’s poor media freedom record, the reports appeared to be credible and gained some traction outside the country.

Access to the internet in Turkmenistan is controlled by the state and currently less than 21 percent of the population has such access. However, internet access may be about to receive a booster shot: Berdimuhamedov apparently now believes that viruses can be transmitted through printed matter and has called for internet access to be improved, saying that “it is important to switch to a remote electronic communication system and services as soon as possible.”

This is a slightly updated version of an article that first appeared on EJO’s German-language site with the headline “Zentralasien: Die Corona-Krise und die Medien“.

This article was published on 24 April 2020 at the English-language website of the European Journalim Observatory.