Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Western actors have supported the development of independent journalism in Central Asia as a means of assisting the transition from communism to democracy. Assuming the universal appeal of Western, democratic values, they trusted that providing funding and Western-style journalism training would be sufficient for democratizing media in the region.
This strategy is also known as the “import model,” which, according to Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “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.”
Nearly 30 years later, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the import model has failed to increase press freedom in the region.
In 2019, Freedom House gave all five Central Asian states press rankings of “not free,” with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which is considered “partly free.” Kyrgyzstan holds the best ranking among the Central Asian states with a score of five, Kazakhstan received a six, Tajikistan came in at six and a half, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan both scored the worst possible freedom rating of seven out of seven in terms of being the “least free.”
According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan has now replaced North Korea as the most unfree media environment in the world.
Nevertheless, Western governments and non-government organizations continue to rely on the import model to guide their involvement in the region’s media landscape, ignoring scholars’ skepticism about its effectiveness and the obvious lack of progress after years of intervention and millions of dollars in investment.
The failure of the import model can be attributed in part to regional elites and their reluctance to relinquish control over local media. This creates a wide range of negative incentives that discourage journalists from pursuing Western-style independent reporting, ranging from economic pressure and self-censorship to physical threats.
But although this accounts for the small amount of independent journalism being produced in the region, it doesn’t explain the fact that popular engagement with independent media (and the values it was founded upon) is very limited, as well.
Overall, Western attempts to influence the Central Asian media landscape failed to anticipate how local values and the legacy of the Soviet system continue to influence popular expectations for the press. As such, the failure of the import model in Central Asia can arguably be attributed to flaws in the model itself.
According to Richard Schafer, the Marxist values that defined Soviet era journalism continue to influence press systems in Central Asia today. Unlike democratic press systems, Soviet journalism was interpretive rather than objective and functioned as an ideological propaganda tool subordinate to the state. This system remained in place until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ reforms of the 1980s sought to enhance press freedom.
Gorbachev’s new media laws renegotiated the relationship between the state and the press. Journalists’ ability to work more freely became connected to the granting of official accreditation (in other words, being a registered journalist). According to researcher Olivia Allison, journalists’ rights then became conditional and could be revoked if they did not fulfill their corresponding duties to the state – which was still a step up from complete subordination.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Central Asian elites essentially incorporated this conditionality into their respective national press systems. As Eric Freedman argues, post-Soviet press systems in Central Asia have effectively adapted Soviet-style media to their own authoritarian nation building projects. As a result, people in Central Asia expect media to be interpretive and values driven, rather than objective. What’s more, they are often weary of perceived Western or liberal bias in independent media, and instead seek out media that reflects their values.
For example, a 2011 case study from journalist Navbahor Imamova revealed that international radio and television broadcasting in Uzbekistan had an overall annual reach of less than 4 percent. What’s more, respondents often considered foreign broadcasters as platforms for the Uzbek political opposition or believed these media outlets reflected the policies of the countries that fund them.
This critical response to Western and/or Western-style media reflects a generally different set of expectations for journalism. Although Western media often has its own political biases, there is an expectation (or hope) that journalists strive for objectivity in their reporting, even if this is not the reality. In Central Asia, however, the assumption is that journalism serves the interests of some political group; be it the state, the opposition, or a foreign country.
Expectations for values driven media also contribute to the popularity of Russian media in the region, especially Russian television. Capitalizing on shared values, language, high production quality and entertainment value, Russian media enjoys a widespread audience in Central Asia.
In Kazakhstan, for example, there are 15 free television channels available, 11 of which feature bilingual Russian and Kazakhstani programming, and about half of the population has access to the 103 available subscription channels of Russian origin. The Russian language RuNet also dominates the country’s Internet space; the most popular search engine (Yandex), social networks (VKontakte and Odnoklassniki) and Email service (Mail.ru), all come from Russia.
Although there have been some attempts to constrict Russian influence through the promotion of Kazakhstani media – such as laws increasing the mandatory amount of programming in the Kazakh language – when compared to Western media, Russian media has profited from comparatively fewer constraints from local political elites because it is reflective of their values.
By assuming the universal appeal of liberalism and democracy, Western actors thought the fall of the Soviet Union would implicitly give way to the development of democratic states in Central Asia. Instead, the consolidation of authoritarian nation states in the region has promoted nationalism, conservative and/or “traditionalist” values and different expectations for democracy.
Although countries in the region are experiencing social change, it is not necessarily liberal or democratic in the Western sense of the words. As Paul Stronski and Russel Zanca wrote for the Carnegie Russia & Eurasia Program:
“Democracy is important to the people of Central Asia, but their notions of democracy are different from American ones. Far more than the desire for political parties, free elections, or an independent parliament, Central Asia’s budding social activism is motivated by the desire for transparent and accountable government, even if it is not fully democratic.”
Meanwhile, Russian media thrives because of its ability to promote “shared conservative values” that allegedly set Russia and states in Central Asia apart from the rest of the world. As Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle argue, this explains why the Russian media strategy of masking authoritarian values as democratic has been far more successful than the promotion of actual liberal democracy. Meanwhile, the Western import model has had the unintended consequence of being most successful at influencing media commercialization, rather than independence, in the region.
Overall, academics see the potential for the development of truly independent media in Central Asian states as extremely limited. Meanwhile, a small number of independent journalists continue to work in the region against all odds and at great personal risk. Their stories reflect the successful spread of Western-style independent journalism, but their influence is not widespread. Barring radical political and social change in Central Asia, the state-controlled, Russian-influenced media landscape isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Eilish Hart is a freelance writer and editor covering current affairs in Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia. She is a recent M.A. European and Russian Affairs graduate from the University of Toronto, interested in a range of topics, including international affairs, human rights, media freedom, migration, memory politics and Soviet history. Follow her on Twitter @EilishHart.
 Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Demokratizatsiya 23.3 (Summer 2015): 228.
 Richard Shafer, “Soviet Foundations of Post-Independence Press in Central Asia,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 20-21.
 Olivia Allison, “Loyalty in the New Authoritarian Model: Journalistic Rights and Duties in Central Asian Media Law,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 143-144.
 Eric Freedman, “Theoretical Foundations for Researching the Roles of the Press in Today’s Central Asia,” inAfter the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 2.
 Navbahor Imamova, “International Broadcasting in Uzbekistan: Does it Still Matter?” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia, ed. Eric Freedman and Richard Shafer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 200.
 Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 228-229.
 Marlene Laruelle, Dylan Royce and Serrik Reyssembayev. “Untangling the Puzzle of ‘Russia’s Influence’ in Kazakhstan,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 60.2 (2019): 226-227.
 Rollberg and Laruelle, “The Media Landscape in Central Asia,” 229.