FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 15, 2016
Ambassador Baer’s Interview with RFE/RL Central Asia Service
December 14, 2016
Neuer Saal, Hofburg Palace
QUESTION: Journalists are being intimidated, attacked, and recently one of our journalists, another one, was arrested, as you might have heard. Allashov was arrested along with at least five members of his family, and we have fears that he might have been tortured. And for the last several days we lost contact with the family members. Other journalists have been attacked several times, as you know. What do you make of it? How do we protect people of media in such countries as Turkmenistan?
BAER: Well, obviously it goes without saying that media freedom in Turkmenistan has a long way to go, and has been difficult for some time. We continue to follow the case of Mr. Allashov and his family. I know that my colleague, Assistant Secretary Biswal, spoke about our concern about this case last week when she was at the Ministerial in Hamburg. Secretary Kerry obviously met with the Foreign Ministers of four of the five Central Asian countries — Foreign Minister Meredov was not in attendance at Hamburg, so he wasn’t able to see him there — but we have been following the Allashov case, obviously Mr. Nepeskuliyev as well, and as you mentioned, several other journalists have suffered various forms of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment. I think the message across all of these cases remains clear, which is that Turkmenistan has OSCE commitments, it has obligations under international law, and the protection of a free media and freedom of expression is not just an international obligation for Turkmenistan, but we continue to see that really as part of building a stronger, more stable future in a difficult region.
QUESTION: And other than calling on the authorities to release the journalists, stopping to intimidate, what else can be done in such situations? What would you say?
BAER: Well, obviously, getting the story out there is one way of highlighting and giving a broader audience an understanding of what is going on. I think, you know, we continue to raise our concerns both publicly and privately, and in whatever way we can, to try to encourage a constructive approach and a good outcome. And you know, the concerns about punishing journalists are one thing — punishing the families of journalists as well, taking punitive measures against the families of journalists or activists is a practice that really is reserved for the most horrible regimes around the world, and so we really are very concerned by this news that his family may also be being punished.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, I’m here for all Central Asian services of Radio Free Europe. I wanted to talk about Uzbekistan. Just today, President Mirziyoyev was sworn in. He is officially President of Uzbekistan now. And many steps that he has taken since being appointed acting president, and then he was elected — people are saying, yesterday and today, people in the conference I was attending were saying, including Uzbek officials and Uzbek journalists, that those steps are encouraging. Would you make such an assessment at this stage that the new government of Uzbekistan is making positive steps that can encourage you?
BAER: Well obviously, coming out of 25 years under Mr. Karimov, there is opportunity for Uzbekistan to turn a page and to welcome a more open, more transparent, more democratic era. Obviously there were elections earlier this month in Uzbekistan, and while the OSCE observation mission found a number of things to be concerned with, it did note that access was granted to the OSCE, that that was facilitated, and that there were some aspects of the elections that were more transparent than in the past.
You know, I think one — you can see this moment as a moment of opportunity for the people of Uzbekistan and for the leadership to really make progress together. And I think probably, you know, a couple of weeks in — as you said, he was just sworn in — a couple weeks in is probably too soon to make any judgments, and people deserve a chance to establish a record. But we’ve made clear from the United States perspective that we are ready to continue to work with the authorities and with the people of Uzbekistan to do whatever we can to support a continued trajectory of progress toward a more democratic future.
QUESTION: And one of the participants in the conference on media freedom in Central Asia, Chairman of Uzbek Parliamentary Committee on Information and Communication, he answered a question yesterday on blocking information sites. He flatly denied that any information site is blocked. And then, answering another question about jailed journalists in Uzbekistan, he said that if they are jailed there is a sentence from a court verdict, and he denied that these journalists were imprisoned for their journalistic activity. Such responses in an international conference while the changes are happening would encourage you?
BAER: Look, as I said, it’s too soon to make judgments about what this transition means for Uzbekistan. It’s not too soon to highlight the fact that this is an opportunity. And this is an opportunity that, by making democratic progress, the new government has an opportunity to strengthen the country — to strengthen its independence, to strengthen its resilience. Again, Uzbekistan is obviously, geographically — geography isn’t going to change — and geographically, Uzbekistan is in a difficult position. But I think our assessment is that the best strategy for the next 25 years for Uzbekistan is to make continued progress toward a more transparent, accountable government, and I think, you know, there are a number of opportunities for progress on that front.
QUESTION: Another question from our Uzbek colleagues was that the OSCE provides technical assistance and sometimes financial assistance to the cause of improving human rights in Uzbekistan. But there is a criticism saying that most of that help goes to what they call governmental-controlled NGOs or quasi-NGOs. What would you say in response to such criticism?
BAER: Well, I mean, I think first of all, one has to address the phenomenon of GONGOs or government-controlled NGOs, and GONGOs are a tool that are used by insecure governments when they don’t believe that they can defend the actions of the government on their own. They create fake civil society organizations to help rationalize their behavior. And wherever you see a GONGO, you know that you have an insecure government that is probably doing something wrong. So, in general, I think GONGOs are a sign of weakness, not of strength. You know, I think OSCE field missions across the OSCE area do good work in convening actors from society and trying to figure out how to support progress toward implementing OSCE commitments. And I think, in different places, there are different opportunities for convening those actors. And certainly, we support using the OSCE as a platform for that kind of convening, among other things, that can really drive the kind of change that benefits both governments and the citizens they are supposed to serve.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, about Kyrgyzstan now, last Sunday there was a referendum and one of the points that was brought to referendum was the banning of same-sex relationships. What’s your take on that — what would your reaction be there?
BAER: Well, I think the United States’ record on this is clear, which is that the Obama Administration has many, many times spoken out about our commitment to human rights for all people, including LGBT people. The banning of same sex relationships serves no public interest, and it has most often been put up or put forward — including in places “to the West of Vienna” as we say in the OSCE area. Historically, the banning of relationships has most often been put up as a cover for other governance failures. Politicians appeal to discrimination or to hatred of other citizens at a moment when politicians are failing to deliver for all citizens. And so, I think, the banning of same sex relationships serves no defensible public purpose, and citizens in any country where that is put forward should be suspicious of what the government is trying to distract them from. And obviously we have seen this used by President Putin in Russia to try to distract from his own failings to deliver for the people of Russia on a strong future. And we would regret to see Kyrgyzstan or any other country copy / paste out of that playbook because it is a losing playbook. It is not one that serves the government or the people of Kyrgyzstan well in the future.
QUESTION: About two months ago there was an OSCE-sponsored human rights conference in Warsaw. Members of the Kyrgyz and Tajik opposition were attending, and that drew a lot of criticism from officials of those governments in Dushanbe and in Bishkek. The OSCE office in Dushanbe was attacked. Stones were thrown. What was your reaction to that?
BAER: You know, HDIM has been around — the meeting that you referred to in Warsaw — has been around for more than two decades. And one of the things that makes it unique is that civil society activists — including those who are critical of governments — can sit at the same table with governments and raise their concerns. Sometimes they raise them incredibly forcefully, sometimes they raise them gently, but part of the value of that forum is that civil society activists are able to raise their concerns directly to governments. I think when governments choose to absent themselves, when governments choose to leave a forum like that, they not only do a disservice to their own cause of not giving their side of the story, so to speak, but they do a disservice to all of us because we are interested in hearing from the governments themselves. In many cases, there may be explanations or misperceptions or other pieces of evidence that need to be brought to the table, and so we really encourage — and we try to set this example ourselves, the United States comes under fierce criticism at HDIM — we try to set the example ourselves of engaging with that criticism. Where we disagree with it, we say we disagree with it, but we engage with it and try to answer it respectfully, even when it comes from people we don’t think are particularly well positioned to criticize us.
QUESTION: And Tajikistan, again, Mr. Ambassador. We have been observing that there was a certain pressure on mass media, including using the accreditation as leverage on members of the mass media to censor them. And this kind of attitude we have seen in other OSCE member countries like Belarus, Tatarstan, and Azerbaijan. What would you say about that?
BAER: Obviously accreditation processes are a tool that is used by a number of governments to try to limit the access of the media. In reference to the specific situation in Tajikistan, obviously we have seen over the last couple of years some real challenges to the openness and transparency of covering political events, etc. I understand that, for governments, transparency and criticism can be difficult. That’s not unique to Tajikistan. But one of the things that we have urged in our public statements as well as our private engagements is that the best way forward — the way to have a credible position as a government — is to support that kind of openness, to allow journalists to cover the government, to allow journalists to criticize the government, and to welcome that kind of openness. And we have heard from a number of people across political lines in Tajikistan is that that kind of open, democratic future is what they want.
QUESTION: And one more question about Kazakhstan, I wanted to ask. In Kazakhstan, we have always been observing the intimidation and even jailing of journalists and bloggers. Can you tell me, what do you think about that?
BAER: We’ve raised our concern with specific cases in Kazakhstan several times recently, earlier this year with respect to the land reform protests and just a few weeks ago Maks Bokayev’s case. One of the things that is — more than maybe international commitments and international law — that has purchase over the decisions made by governments is obviously their own constitution. And one of the things we have urged is that the Kazakh constitution has protections for due process and fair trials, and it would be advantageous for Kazakhstan to pursue those trials where activists and those who have organised protests, etc., have been put on trial in a way that is consistent with the protections that are in Kazakhstan’s own constitution.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador.
BAER: Thank you.