#UnitedCVE: The Media and Civil Society in Countering Violent Extremism in Central Asia


Just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

A little late in posting because of other work, but now details of last month’s conference and workshop in Bishkek organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kyrgyzstan, OSCE Academy, American University of Central Asia, Internews, Soros, and the PromoTank Research Institute. The event, Cooperation between Media and Civil Society for Countering Information Threats and Promoting Transparency and Accountability, was held on 28-30 and I was a panelist and also held a workshop for the OSCE on the media and counter-narratives.

Below are my workshop slides and below that are my talking points for the panel which also included Kumar Bekbolotov, Executive Director of the PromoTank Research Institute, Ernis Mamyrkanov, Deputy Minister of Transport and Communication of the Kyrgyz Republic, Antonio Momok, Professor of Journalism and Communication at the University of Bucharest, and Yerzhan Suleymanov, Director of Internews in Kazakhstan. Below those are more photos of Kyrgyzstan.

It followed previous presentations last year for the OSCE on the Media and Counter-Terrorism as well as Foreign Terrorist Fighters at events in Tajikistan and Romania as well as the United Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. My particular thanks to Anna Vorobeva, National Media Officer at the OSCE Centre in Bishkek.

    It’s great to be back in Central Asia again. The last time I was here was in Tajikistan a little over a year ago, again for the OSCE, and I’d like to thank the organisers for the opportunity to be here now, this time in Kyrgyzstan. Of course, despite the proximity of Central Asia to the South Caucasus, the journey here via Turkey reminded me of how much “distance” there actually is.

    There’s very little coverage of Central Asia in the media in the South Caucasus, for example, and I suspect the same is true vice-versa so that’s why I also welcome this opportunity to make contact with all of you in person. That the South Caucasus is a transit route for Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) from Central Asia and the Russian Federation to Syria is reason enough.

The focus of this conference is on information threats, a hot topic pretty much everywhere these days. Increased antagonism between the West and Russia over Ukraine and Syria is just one example of a new propaganda war being fought online and off, while the Islamic State — ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh — is another given its unprecedented use of the Internet to recruit and spread its, shall we say, unfortunate message. 

    The main focus for my contribution to this panel, therefore, will be to comment on how civil society and the media can counter threats posed by extremist narratives and ideologies from such groups, and a few of the obstacles that exist. In a session later, I’ll be looking at this in more detail, but for now, the South Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, can serve as a brief example.

    Government measures to stem the flow of FTFs from the South Caucasus to Syria have largely been punitive to date. Borders have been tightened as per UN Security Council Resolution 2178, and there have also been attempts to control religious belief, something that is generally counter-productive and which can actually lead to exacerbating division and/or conflict in society.


I think we can all agree that punitive action is not necessarily the same as preventative action.


Although we can only estimate actual numbers, at least 100 Georgians are believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria, mainly for ISIS, and there are as many as 400-500 from Azerbaijan. Incidentally, one of the main military commanders for ISIS, Abu Omar al Shishani, hails from Pankisi, a picturesque region of Georgia inhabited by members of the country’s small ethnic Kist and Chechen minority.

    There are policies to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into Georgian society, but there are few, if any, concrete efforts to prevent radicalisation. Nevertheless, in recent months, there has been interest in implementing such measures, not least since Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov alleged that Pankisi was home to ISIS training camps, something that Georgia, the US, and EU strongly deny.

    It should also be pointed out that individuals from other sections of society in Georgia are at risk from radicalisation too, and because there are many pathways for an individual to take towards extremism, we cannot — and should not — stereotype or tarnish the image of an entire specific community. That’s why I speak of at-risk individuals whenever possible, rather than their specific ethnic or religious groups.


To do so otherwise is dangerous. In Europe and the United States, for example, we have already seen how generalisations have resulted in increased Islamophobia, hate speech, and sometimes violence directed against Moslems, regardless of their country of origin or branch of Islam. Unfortunately, sensationalised or inaccurate reports in some media have contributed to this.


The same is true with regards to how we report on conflict and terrorism in general.

    Of course, in regions such as the South Caucasus and Central Asia, where media censorship, self-censorship, the imprisonment of journalists, surveillance, and control of civil society, are already matters of concern, governments must allow both a freer space to operate in and certainly resist the temptation to use counter-terrorism legislation to silence alternative or dissenting voices. 

    And one of the reasons for why this is so important is in the area of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and the need to combat the narratives that attract youth to the ranks of groups such as ISIS. At every conference, workshop, or expert working group I’ve been part of over the last three years, the consensus of opinion is that governments are not credible actors in directly preventing at-risk individuals from turning towards radicalisation.

    Sometimes, governments can even be counterproductive and part of the reason for that radicalisation. So this is where the media, civil society, and the communities themselves come in. But that’s not to say that governments have no role to play.

    Indeed, despite the popularity of social media, television remains the most widely accessible form of media in the South Caucasus as I’m sure it is here. So, with many stations close to the State, the possibility to amplify the voices of women, youth, religious leaders, and communities through a widely accessible medium does of course exist.

Nevertheless, regardless of who owns or controls the medium, those voices have to be credible.

    Earlier this month, for example, a new station, Radio Way, was launched in Pankisi. It’s main objective is to function as community radio, bringing residents not only national news, but also international updates. Not surprisingly, objective news from Syria will be a particular focus, as will diverse music scheduling which will include content intended to strengthen local minority culture.

    It also operates from the same office as the Information Centre of Kakheti which publishes local news online and which has been exemplary in its coverage of radicalisation and the FTF problem from Pankisi. Adjacent is a school where Kist and Chechen children learn English and update their own blog, the Pankisi Times.

    Two other NGOs in the same building run vocational training and other courses.

In just one location, here’s an example of how the multi-faceted problems facing Pankisi — namely marginalisation, isolation, radicalisation, and poverty — can be tackled by local media and civil society working together with the support of international donors.

    And yes, such endeavours are dwarfed by the use of the Internet by extremist groups, but government censorship is also not the answer. First, it is often counterproductive, contributing instead to an information vacuum that extremists can exploit and fill. Second, it’s ineffective. Blocks on Twitter and YouTube in some countries are now so commonplace that users know how to circumvent them.

For now at least, extremist propaganda cannot be entirely eradicated from the Internet. Instead, it can be countered and/or disrupted. And with international organisations and donors continuing to support the development of the media and civil society, especially in the use of new tools and approaches, a solid foundation for building CVE and CVE-relevant projects exists.

    Thank You.


    Onnik James Krikorian is a freelance journalist, photojournalist, fixer, media consultant, and trainer from the U.K. currently based in Georgia and contributes to the BBC’s Azeri Service, IWPR, EurasiaNet, and others as well as holding workshops and trainings in conflict-sensitive journalism and social media for journalists and civil society activists from the South Caucasus. From 2007-2012 he was the Caucasus Regional Editor for Global Voices Online and has covered conflict in the region since 1994. 

    He has been a speaker and participant in expert working group meetings, seminars, and conferences on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), Counter Narratives, and Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) organised by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), Hedayah Center, International Center for Counterterrorism – The Hague (ICCT), the OSCE office in Tajikistan, OSCE Transnational Threats Division, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED), and OSCE Centre in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

    For more on the OSCE’s United CVE campaign see here.







Bishkek and just outside, Kyrgyzstan © Onnik James Krikorian 2016

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