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OSCE Criticizes Online Access in Central Asia - 2004-08-28

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe closed a special conference on the Internet Saturday with some critical comments on restricted online access in Central Asia.

OSCE legal and media experts meeting in Amsterdam said there is wide diversity - what they call a "digital divide" - in citizens' access to the Internet among the organization's 55 member countries.

Alexander Ivanko, a senior OSCE official, told VOA the organization wants more people to have the chance to get online.

"We discussed access to information and access to networks, looking at, for example, the digital divide and some interesting statistics," he said. "In some OSCE participating states, like Sweden, Finland, Norway and Canada, there are about 5,000 users per 10,000 inhabitants. Then in places like Tajikistan, there are less than 10 users of the Internet per 10,000 inhabitants, and in Turkmenistan less than 20. Even in Russia it's about 500."

Mr. Ivanko says, in Turkmenistan, there is only one Internet provider, and it is firmly controlled by the president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

In Uzbekistan, experts say, there are only a few hundred thousand Internet users out of a population of some 25 million, but in the big cities photocopies of foreign Web sites are often circulated.

Last year, a Russian-language Web site attacked the president, Islam Karimov, linking his name to alleged drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe. The site was jammed by the Uzbek authorities, and the government-controlled television stations mounted a campaign refuting the charges.

This week, authorities in another Central Asian state, Tajikistan, closed a private printing house, officially because of tax irregularities. Mr. Ivanko says, whatever the reason, the case is cause for concern.

"We are always concerned where a printing facility that especially publishes non-governmental newspapers is shut down," said Mr. Ivanko. "We consider that a very worrying trend."

Next month, the OSCE plans to hold a special media conference on Central Asia in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, where this case will be reviewed.