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Central Asian Regional Peacebuilding Festival

The long-awaited Central Asian Regional Peacebuilding Festival is finally here! With a year-long delay, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the final visibility activities within the “Strengthening resilience to radicalisation and disinformation in Central Asia” (Phase II) took place online on Zoom during March 23-26, 2021.

The 18-month project that started in October 2019 and is implemented by Internews and financed by the European Union aimed to strengthen the resilience of citizens to radicalisation narratives and disinformation leading to violent extremism through support to media, civil society organisations, government institutions, religious leaders and active citizens in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It was a follow-up intervention, which built on lessons learned from the implementation of the previous project “Contributing to stability and peace in Central Asia through media literacy, improved reporting and regional cooperation” (Phase I).

The online festival gathered journalists, experts, religious leaders, educators, think tanks, government officials, young leaders and representatives of different communities of Central Asia. They came together to discuss their experiences in implementing content and social projects, results and challenges, and how their projects influenced their lives and lives of their story subjects.

The European Neighbourhood Council (ENC) in cooperation with Internews office in Kyrgyzstan during the 23rd and 24th of March organised a series of online sideline events which were livestreamed through Three Dots Fest social media platforms to four Central Asian countries.

The first event, “Media and Access to Information in Supporting Development, Preventing Radicalisation and Guaranteeing Social Inclusion”, took place on the 23rd of March and featured opening remarks by MEP Niklas Nienass from the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance and DCAS member. During the panel discussion, Boris Iarochevitch, Head of Central Asia Division of the European External Action Service, Indira Aslanova, Director of Centre for Religious Studies, Farhod Rahmatov, Internews Project Director in Central Asian and Andreas Marazis, European Neighbourhood Council (ENC) Head of Research for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, shared their insights and key messages. The discussion was moderated by Shada Islam, ENC External Advisor and Founder of New Horizons Project, and featured comments from Jack Parrock, TV and radio correspondent for Euronews.

Nicklas Nienass opened the discussion by highlighting the relevance of the topic of media and information, especially in the fight against disinformation and against radicalization, where it is essential to have access to clear information and accurate facts. He pointed out the importance of individual responsibility in delving into details and check if we have our facts straight. Mr. Nienass also underlined the significant role that members of the civil society have to play in this issue, as they have access to facts and can push for media freedom and access to information for everyone.

Boris Iarochevitch emphasized the importance of media pluralism, access to information and quality education, including in rural areas as well as for girls and women, as a response to violent extremism. In order to have accessible information, Mr. Iarochevitch advocated for an affordable, open and secure digital infrastructure, which should be combined with the necessary digital literacy and skills. Based on the latest discussions with Civil Society Organisations (CSO), the EU is well aware of the urgent need to develop digitalisation in Central Asia, and the important role that can be played by CSOs in raising awareness on this issue. These three key aspects are present in the recent EU strategy for Central Asia from 2019, and more recent issues such as media literacy and extremism will be taken into account in the next stages of EU-funded programmes.

Mr. Iarochevitch also underlined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the disproportionate footprint that has left on various vulnerable groups such as labour migrants, women and people from rural areas. As freedom of expression was negatively affected around the world, some Central Asian governments also took advantage of it to adopt restrictive laws under the pretext of stopping fake news, while the population has only limited access to information, and even less so to science-based information.

Indira Aslanova explained the results of her latest research on meanings and values that are spread by extremist groups and the responses they triggered. Among the findings were the fact that youth are more affected when the extremist narrative used correlates with values that are shared by the reader, such as wishing good or helping others. Considering such results, Ms. Aslanova argued that PVE and CVE communications should be based on both a better correlation to the values of contemporary Central Asian youth, and on the creation of alternative narratives to challenge the attractiveness of the radical ones, and compensates the need for self-identification and success.

The different channels that are used are also particularly important as they are very specific to Central Asia according to Ms. Aslanova (for example the use of application with high encryption like Telegram), which is why it is essential that PVE and CVE communications redirect the audience to a reliable and local source of information.

Ms. Aslanova also suggested to strengthen ties between the different communities such as children/parents and youth/society in order to influence the resilience to those narratives, as well as for local authorities to develop a local agenda so that people can have an alternative way of filling the void and foster involvement within the community, while counterweighting the feeling of being left out by the government.

Farhod Rahmatov shared, in his views, two key elements that make an extremist propaganda successful. The first one is the highly effective and widespread use of social media, resulting in the misinformation of the local communities, which is then developing biased perspective on sensitive social, political and religious issues. The second key element is the targeting of young generations, as they represent half of the population in Central Asia, while still feeling ostracised, overwhelmed or marginalised by the society, feeling that is exacerbated by the lack of quality alternative narratives and content and critical media skills to access, engage and use reliable and verified information among the general population.

According to Mr. Rahmatov, within the current period, filled with uncertainty and instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is getting increasingly important to ensure that people can access trusted sources of high-quality information in order to counter misinformation, disinformation, rumour, xenophobia, and stigma towards migrants and their families, refugees and ethnic minorities. To produce information that will reach the youth, it needs to be clear and understandable, but mostly easily transferable to an online format.

Andreas Marazis came back on the findings of the recent ENC study on “Socio-Economic impact of COVID-19 and Media Consumption among Vulnerable Communities in Central Asia”, which shows that vulnerable communities have difficulties to access suitable information and are less likely to develop resilience when faced with the promotion of extremist narratives on social media.

Mr. Marazis shared three key recommendations based on the findings of this research. First, the EU should facilitate dialogue and cooperation among governments, NGOs and independent media in an effort to counter disinformation and provide accurate and science based-news, including by funding research-based data collection with regards to vulnerable communities and their needs and challenges at a regional and national level. Second, the difficulty to reach out to vulnerable groups should be taken into account. More cooperation among local NGOs and independent media outlets is essential in increasing the engagement with vulnerable communities and the understanding of their needs and challenges. Finally, a major barrier to accessing COVID-19 information for different ethnic groups is the lack of information in languages other than Russian and the national languages.

Jack Parrock highlighted the key role journalists play in preventing violent extremism, and that content producers from Central Asia and from Europe need to cooperate more often, to learn from each other, to exchange better practices in PVE. Radicalization and violent extremism are considered highly sensitive issues to cover in the region by independent journalists, as the religious spectrum in countries of Central Asia is itself complicated. Mr. Parrock also touched upon the subject of ethics while covering specific issues such as hostage situations, which journalists face more often in Central Asia than in Europe.

To close the first session, Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, ENC Managing Director concluded by highlighting that what we learnt during the pandemic is that people feeling marginalized and left behind are at higher risk of being manipulated and radicalized, and that violent extremism often comes from poverty and social exclusion. According to Mr. Doveri Vesterbye, this only strengthened the argument on the importance of building bridges, reaching to people in different languages and fighting social exclusion via education, media literacy and digitalisation.

The second event was dedicated to the screening of “Shards” an interactive film project developed by a production studio in Kyrgyzstan and the Association of Religion Study Centres in Kazakhstan. The project aimed to develop resistance to radicalisation among young people via an interactive film with variable endings, wherein the viewer’s choice (“Yes” or “No”) affected the storyline. Following the screening of the movie, a short Q&A session ensued between Andreas Marazis and Azim Azimov, founder of Media Kitchen production studio, winner of regional and international advertising festivals, film director and screenwriter.

When asked about the rationale behind the movie, Azim Azimov explained that the interactive part was interactive was to include an educational purpose to the movie. Instead of just having a model to follow, each person in the audience can question whether they would have done the same or not when facing the same issues as the main character on her path to radicalization.

Mr. Azimov stated that the charecters and the story on the movie were fictional, however based on real-life events. Meetings with gurus ‘saving’ peoples lives, or the process of recruiting in hospitals when parents need help for their children for example, are depicting existing channels of radicalization used by individuals who are part of extremist organizations. In order to adequately represent how radicalization works, Mr. Azimov worked used a documentary and ideas taken from real life by using interviews with people imprisoned for extremism.

Andreas Marazis highlighted the importance of using various channels of communication such as movies, art and social networks, in an effort to reach out to a broader audience and pass the right message.

Finally, Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, wrapped the session up by stating once again the importance of such initiatives stemming from real life events, showcasing how a normal person becomes the victim of an extremist organization and then how this person becomes himself the perpetrator of violence, making others the victims to his/her actions.

Mr. Doveri Versterbye highlighted that five years ago in Brussels we did not know how this process of radicalization works, but now it is everyone’s responsibility, not only the government, but also CSOs, journalists and the broader audience have a role to play, in engaging with one voice and helping people to stop this process along the way.