For the first Cafe Conversation of the fall semester, David Mould, who has a Ph.D in philosophy, gave what he called a little tour of central Asia, with some harassment stories to accompany it.
The professor emeritus of Media Arts and Studies has spent time studying journalism in countries most Scripps students might not be able to pronounce. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are on the other side of the world in more ways than one. When it comes to their libel laws and political mechanisms, they’re on a whole other spectrum.
“Until recent, Kyrgyzstan was one of the few countries in the world where libel was a criminal, rather than a civil, offense. You would go to prison for life,” Mould said.
He told the story of a corrupt libel lawsuit, where an investigative piece on poor factory conditions landed the reporter in prison. Between sources being charged with falsifying information and mysteriously lost testimony, the case demonstrated Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on honor and dignity versus the truth.
“The case shows that in the libel cases, provable truth, which would be standard in the U.S. and in many other countries, is no defense,” Mould said. “The conditions were as bad as the article outlined, but in this particular case, because the reputation of the factory manager had been attacked, it was libelous.”
Mould also discussed Kyrgyzstan’s southern cities, where shifting borders and conflicting ethnic populations create political tension. Osh TV established itself as the first commercial news station in the ethnically-divisive region after the Soviet Union dissolved, but soon faced persecution from the oppressive government regime.
After raids by the security service and tax police, then investigations by building inspectors and fire marshals, mysterious power cuts and strict broadcasting regulations forced the station to its figurative knees.
“All of these pressures lead to self-censorship. Journalists avoid covering topics that could get them into trouble, or they cover them in such a way that they don’t cross a line,” Mould said.
In Kazakhstan, Mould asked journalists which topics they avoided covering or covered with extreme caution. The private life of government officials, the transfer of state property to private ownership, the financial status of government officials, interethnic and racial issues, and problems in the capital city all made the list.
One investigative paper, the Respublika, broke those taboos. By reporting on disappearing government funds, the practice of awarding oil concessions to the president’s family and secret government accounts in Swiss banks, the publication garnered negative attention from officials.
“For most people there, politics are nothing. They’re more concerned with having enough food, having a roof over their head, not with what those politicians do. They’re all crooks anyway,” Mould said.
So when Kazakhstan’s government charged the editor of the Respublika with violating labor laws, sent a funeral wreath to her on International Women’s Day and left a dog’s head outside her apartment with a note that read “there will be no next time,” there was little local outrage. The paper’s offices were subsequently firebombed and burned to the ground, but the paper still persists to this day.
“I think self-censorship happens with every journalist,” Mould said, as he moved into discussing the journalistic sphere as a whole. “You’re not going to write critical investigative articles on every organization in the city. You’ve got to keep up contacts.”
Mould hasn’t personally experienced persecution while in central Asia, although he does believe his phone calls were listened to. Issues of access to information are still apparent in the U.S., he admitted, but not in the same capacity that reporters in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan experience.
While investigative reporters were not sentenced with literal death, they often saw the end of their careers. Subtle, indirect dangers that journalists face are imposed by oppressive government regimes, and while they may be able to publish, there’s no guarantee they’ll be safe from persecution.
The next Cafe Conversation takes place Oct. 26, and will be on data journalism.