By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric Freedman, a Michigan State University journalism professor and a Capital News Service editor, is on leave from MSU and CNS to teach journalism in Uzbekistan this spring. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Detroit News.)
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — David Mikosz of Sterling Heights is a preacher of sorts, and his gospel is that free access to the Internet can be a powerful tool for democracy in remote Central Asia.
Asked why Internet access should be free, the Michigan State University grad answers, “Why are libraries free? We understand the importance of spreading knowledge.”
That’s especially true in his territory where all five countries have authoritarian governments that remain legacies of the Soviet era although they gained independence in 1991.
In Uzbekistan where Mikosz is based, and in neighboring Tajikistan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, freedom of speech, press and religion are promised in the national constitutions. But censorship, self-censorship, one-party rule and repression are the reality.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported, “Government domination of the media, including the Internet, is all but absolute in Uzbekistan.”
Since Sept. 11, the region has drawn world attention. Three of the countries border Afghanistan, and U.S. foreign aid and troops are pouring in.
Mikosz, 32, coordinates Internet access and training for the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) which is funded by the U.S. State Department. In addition to Internet issues, IREX arranges research and study exchanges and strengthens independent media.
He graduated from Sterling Heights High School and MSU’s James Madison College. While a student, he lost a race for an Ingham County Commission seat from an East Lansing district, worked for then-state Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and interned at the Michigan AFL-CIO.
He earned a doctorate in history at Cambridge University in England before heading to Siberia for 10 months to work for the Civic Education Project, a nonprofit group that promotes democratic institutions.
“I hadn’t realized being in Siberia would be so isolated,” he said. As for the weather, “it could be minus-45 in the winter and snow from October until April.”
In his current job, Mikosz started with six Internet centers that are free to members of the public who undergo training and to journalists, students and academics who took part in U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs in the United States. IREX now has 33 free-access centers in Mikosz’s region, more than two-thirds of its goal of 50.
Human rights and environmental activists often use them as well.
Some of its training is designed to teach the deaf and people with physical disabilities how to use the Internet.
For Americans, the Internet is part of daily life, with free or cheap access at schools, home, work and libraries.
Not so in Central Asia, where even universities and government agencies often lack an Internet connection. Paying $1 an hour at a privately owned Internet cafŽ in Tashkent, for example, is prohibitively expensive for people whose monthly salary may be only $20.
Mikosz said, “The importance of the Internet and programs like this is not the technology or the people behind the technology, but rather what people do with the technology.
“The real success is people who use our centers feel that they’re part of a bigger world,” he said.
Not surprisingly, some authorities are suspicious of any outside organization that pushes for a more open society. As a result, Mikosz said, “we try not to be high profile.”
He’s faced other obstacles, ranging from poor telephone and electrical service to corrupt local officials. One mayor saw where an Internet center was planned for his city, said “It’s a really nice building” and ordered IREX to move out within three days so the city could take it over.
Meanwhile, as the Internet becomes more accessible, worries grow that governments will tighten official restrictions and block many sites, as now occurs in China. There’s also fear that government-approved monopolies will “filter” content they find politically objectionable. In Kazakhstan, the government has changed critical information on independent Web sites such as CNN’s, he said.
Earlier this year New York-based Freedom House described how Turkmenistan had revoked the licenses of all Internet service providers, “leaving only the state-own Turkmentelekom to provide Internet access.”
And in Uzbekistan, the government-owned UzPak Internet service has a monopoly and already “meddles with citizens’ access to Internet sites that originate inside the country,” according to David Stubbs of the Global Internet Policy Initiative in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ERIC FREEDMAN