BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – When people read a news website, they don't usually imagine that it is being run by a major producer of fighter jets and smart bombs. But when the Pentagon has its own vision of America's foreign policy, and the funds to promote it, it can put a $23 billion defense contractor in a unique position to report on the war on terror.
Over the past three years, a subdivision of Virginia-based General Dynamics has set up and run a network of eight "influence websites" funded by the Defense Department with more than $120 million in taxpayer money. The sites, collectively known as the Trans Regional Web Initiative (TRWI) and operated by General Dynamics Information Technology, focus on geographic areas under the purview of various U.S. combatant commands, including U.S. Central Command. In its coverage of Uzbekistan, a repressive dictatorship increasingly important to U.S. military goals in Afghanistan, a TRWI website called Central Asia Online has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats.
Central Asia Online was created in 2008, a time when Washington's ability to rely on Pakistan as a partner in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan was steadily waning. In the search for alternative land routes to supply U.S. troops, Uzbekistan seemed the best option. Nearby Iran was a non-starter, and Uzbekistan's infrastructure -- used by the Soviets to get in and out of Afghanistan during their ill-fated war there -- was far superior to that of neighboring Tajikistan. Today, the U.S. military moves massive amounts of cargo across Uzbekistan. By year's end, the Pentagon hopes to see 75 percent of all non-lethal military supplies arrive in Afghanistan via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a web of land-based transport routes stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Amu Darya River.
Gas-rich Uzbekistan, the most populous of the formerly Soviet Central Asian republics, has been ruled since before independence in 1991 by strongman President Islam Karimov, who is regularly condemned in the West for running one of the world's most repressive and corrupt regimes. Freedom House gives Uzbekistan the lowest possible score in its Freedom in the World report, while watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on widespread torture and forced child labor. The respected Russian human rights group Memorial says Karimov holds more political prisoners than all other post-Soviet republics combined, often through an "arbitrary interpretation" of the law. The overwhelming majority of those convicted are somehow linked to Islam. Memorial has found that thousands of "Muslims whose activities pose no threat to social order and security are being sentenced on fabricated charges of terrorism and extremism."
Nonetheless, with Pakistani-American relations at a desperate low, Washington now seems more eager than ever to make overtures to Tashkent. In the past, Karimov has responded to U.S. criticism by threatening to shut down the supply route to Afghanistan. In 2005, after Washington demanded an investigation into the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan, he closed the American airbase at Karshi-Khanabad. So Washington's expressions of disapproval have given way to praise. In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously commended Tashkent for its "progress" on political freedoms, and, more significantly, President Barack Obama moved to end restrictions on military aid, in place since 2004. Then, during an Oct. 22 visit to Tashkent, Clinton thanked the Uzbek leader in person for his cooperation. A State Department official traveling with her said he believed Karimov wants to leave a democratic legacy for "his kids and his grandchildren."
Theoretically, with the restrictions lifted, General Dynamics stands to profit. The company has already shown interest in finding clients in Central Asia, hawking its wares at a defense exposition in Kazakhstan last year. This potential self-interest casts an unflattering light on Central Asia Online's flattering coverage of the region's calcified dictatorships, especially Uzbekistan.
Take a March story praising Tashkent's effort to register religious groups. The story does not mention reputable organizations' allegations about arbitrary arrests of Christians and Muslims from unregistered groups, but cites state-affiliated clergy lauding the country's religious freedom and praises the feared security services for acting within the law. The story ends by saying, "Uzbekistan is doing everything necessary to ensure its citizens have the proper conditions to exercise freedom of conscience."
That is patently not so, says John Kinahan of Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog: "The only thing harmonious in Uzbekistan is a constant picture of violations of just about every human right you can name, which is certainly not producing any meaningful exchange of views of what is going on or how people relate to each other."
Reasons for fear remain abundant. On Nov. 17, a closed court near Tashkent convicted 16 men of belonging to a banned Islamist group. Independent reports say they were tortured into signing confessions. The families are despondent, unsure how they will survive without their breadwinners, who were locked away for six to 12 years.
Sometimes the website downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government. On Sept. 13, the State Department singled out Uzbekistan as a country "of particular concern" for religious freedom, noting "serious abuses" in the government's "campaign against extremists or those participating in underground Islamic activity." The day before the report was released, Central Asia Online ran a story defending Tashkent, entitled, "Uzbekistan fights terror, not religion, analysts say." The story canvased members of state-sanctioned religious groups to paint a picture of tolerance inside the country, concluding, simplistically, that "most agree with the crackdown on terror."
"It is not possible to have any independent surveys of what people think of the situation," says Kinahan. "Uzbekistan is a serial human rights violator. People there have a well-founded fear of expressing their true opinions ... it can be dangerous."
Particularly in its coverage related to extremism and terrorism, Central Asia Online toes Tashkent's line and simultaneously demonstrates a level of access unheard of for other Western information gatherers. Foreign reporters, including myself, are regularly denied visas. The few who get in must work undercover, pretending to be aid workers or tourists. Local journalists have little freedom, running the risk of arrest on trumped-up charges of spying or threatening security if they stray from official viewpoints. Meanwhile, respected foreign news outlets like the Associated Press are denied accreditation; websites considered critical of the government, such as Uznews.net and FerganaNews.com, are routinely blocked. Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 163rd out of 178 countries in the organization's 2010 Press Freedom Index and called the country an "Internet Enemy" this year. That Central Asia Online has seemingly unfettered access to the country's feared secret police -- the SNB -- is alone suspicious, suggesting collusion, says an Uzbek journalist who has written secretly for foreign news organizations.
"It looks like the website has a special and close relationship with the Uzbek government," he told me, responding to several Central Asia Online stories on extremism. "The authors have access to officials and clerics who customarily refuse to meet independent-minded journalists; they only talk to government-affiliated journalists whose work is approved by the SNB."
In its stories on alleged extremists, Central Asia Online does
not mention documented government abuses and does not cite skeptical analysts
who might question Tashkent's claims or raise the possibility that its
heavy-handed tactics serve to radicalize practicing Muslims. In an August
story about official assertions that the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan is recruiting among Uzbek labor migrants, the author, "Shakar
Saadi," cites a named SNB officer and even quotes a prisoner -- a startling
feat of reporting prowess, considering that the U.N. special rapporteur on
torture has been denied access
to Uzbekistan's prisons for years.
Over the past two years, the budget for the TRWI websites has increased from $10.1 million to $121 million, according to DOD records. But the parties involved in the project have been reluctant to discuss details. Central Asia Online did not respond to repeated requests for comment, sent via the website, over the course of six months. General Dynamics Information Technology referred questions to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). A spokesman for SOCOM in Tampa would not provide details on why the budget grew so quickly. He said the websites' content is coordinated with regional embassies, but "developed in support of a set of combatant command-assigned objectives."
Representatives of all five U.S. embassies in Central Asia, however, told me they have nothing to do with Central Asia Online. In Tajikistan, where the U.S. embassy has a commendable record of defending media freedoms, a press attaché volunteered that Central Asia Online does not even receive the embassy's press releases. A spokesman for another embassy in the region said he had never heard of the site.
All this raises the question: Is U.S. taxpayer money being given to a for-profit military contractor to shill for a Central Asian dictator, just because he's a useful ally in the war on terror?
"It's disturbing, to say the least," says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Barnard College who writes frequently about America's military footprint in Central Asia. "I would not expect anyone who is otherwise involved as a contractor or a subcontractor for U.S. security agencies to provide objective news analysis of terrorism. Part of covering terrorism means covering both the emergence of legitimate threats, but also covering how the specter of terror is used as political cover for governments to clamp down on political opponents," Cooley said. He called the "fluff" on Central Asia Online "just propaganda."
The bitter irony is that, through its uncritical support for Tashkent's anti-extremism measures, the Pentagon is implicitly endorsing policies believed by many to foment discontent and radicalization in a country that borders Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Tashkent is happy to use this renewed engagement with Washington to boost its image.
The TRWI websites do not hide their affiliation with the U.S. military, stating it clearly in their "About" sections. The original Pentagon solicitation called the sites -- including the Southeast European Times and Magharebia -- "tools in support of strategic and long-term U.S. Government goals and objectives," not professional journalism. Yet for a small outlet covering an obscure corner of the world, Central Asia Online does relatively well. The site has published an average of 71 stories per month this year, which, a SOCOM spokesman told me, garner some 168,000 article reads, 85,000 unique visitors, and 380 reader comments per month.
The target is "online audiences" in the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics, plus Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the material -- mostly about security and published in English, Russian, Urdu, and Farsi -- also seeps into local newspapers, websites, and news aggregators around the world, expanding the site's readership. Though it is the responsibility of those outlets to attribute, many, at least in Central Asia, do not, billing the stories as original, local reporting, rather than DOD propaganda.
Apart from its security focus, Central Asia Online sometimes reports on sports, business, and civil society -- also uncritically, careful to cite government sources on message.
An early July feature, "Uzbekistan proposes more government openness," praised Karimov's instructions to Uzbek officials to write more press releases, which the story said would "ensure public access to information about state agencies and regulate procedures for informing the public about their activities." Local journalists (the kind cleared by the SNB) and officials told Central Asia Online how free information will blossom in Uzbekistan thanks to Karimov's decree. The story did not mention, however, Karimov's June 27 warning that "destructive forces" trawling the Internet are "controlling young minds."
In the weeks following Karimov's speech, while Central Asia Online was praising his country's "openness," Tashkent was blocking dozens of real news portals including the New York Times and Human Rights Watch. Zealous officials even made sure that, when a state-sponsored festival celebrating the .UZ Internet domain was held in Tashkent, no one could get too excited: dozens of websites and international media portals were blocked. Throughout it all, Central Asia Online remained open and accessible in Uzbekistan.