An expert's point of view on a current event.

Dashcams For Freedom

How Central Asians are fighting for their rights, one YouTube clip at a time.

OO OSA YouTube Screenshot cropped

In Kazakhstan, activists are mounting dash cams to cars to film traffic police and showcase their shakedowns on YouTube. In Uzbekistan, renegade lawyers are dispensing online advice on how to lawfully deal with crooked cops and shady bureaucrats. In Tajikistan, a viral video of a driver who ignored a command to pull over by a policeman and then drove forward as the cop clung to the hood of his car spurred national discussion of corruption among traffic police. In Kyrgyzstan, activists from the banned religious group Hizb-ut Tahrir are posting bloody selfies taken after harsh interrogations by security services.

According to Central Asian analysts, corruption is endemic in the region. “Corruption is at every level here,” political analyst Dina Baidildayeva says of her native Kazakhstan. “Be it education, healthcare, road accidents, kindergarten. The majority don’t believe they can change anything and don’t really want change because they are used to corruption from a very early age. You can finish school by buying your diploma. You can bribe your professors to pass exams. As a result we don’t have qualified teachers, doctors. Most people even think that it’s normal for officials to steal public money. Who wouldn’t?”

Until recently, Central Asians had little recourse to address this devastating problem. Not only are organizations that criticize state institutions banned or highly discouraged, merely noting a civic problem — like bribery, crime, or police brutality — can be considered an affront to authorities, who will deny the problem’s existence and likely punish the individual who exposes it. Since state surveillance is an ingrained practice and laws that protect citizens exist more on paper than in practice, any attempt to challenge corruption invites a swift — and brutal — crackdown.

But the spread of cell phones and wider access to the internet are providing new and effective ways of confronting corruption. This is particularly true when it comes to the police — the state body with which citizens are most frequently and problematically in contact. In former Soviet Central Asia, Internet penetration has grown at an average annual rate of about 12 percent. Most citizens access the Internet through social media apps on their phone. Today a Central Asian forced to give a bribe or receive a beating from the police is often able to record the interaction and put it online. Much like the #BlackLivesMatter activists in the United States, Central Asians are able both to document police brutality and to urge their society to acknowledge the problem. This carries the risk of further punishment, but it is becoming more common — and it makes the scourge of police corruption harder for governments to deny.

Most Central Asians who document corruption do not declare a political agenda. The documentation comes mainly from ordinary people who show the ways local authorities fail them without attributing these failures to the government or national leaders. Instead of challenging the law, citizen activists ask local authorities — especially police — to follow the law as written. In effect, they are using the laws of the state to challenge the practices of the state, with cell phones and social media providing new ways to highlight the discrepancy.

“Our goals are simple: we want to be defended by educated police officers who know, use, and follow the laws and are examples to other drivers,” reads the mission statement of Kazakhstan’s Driver Defense Society, a group which posts videos of corrupt traffic cops to a central YouTube channel as well as to Facebook and the Russian social media networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, some of which attract up to 250,000 views. “We want drivers, for their part, to study the law, to know their obligations and their rights, and understand how to use them. We want to achieve mutual respect, so that both police officer and driver can be proud of their state.”

Like most Central Asian citizen documentarians, the Kazakhstan Driver Defense Society does not position itself as against the state, but for the people. It tries to increase both state accountability and public awareness by documenting interactions like a policeman using excessive force, an ethnic Kazakh policeman harassing a non-Kazakh because he says he is looking for a suspect with a “European face,” and children of elites and officials causing fatal crashes but escaping prosecution. The group also distributes print and online pamphlets to educate citizens on their rights, especially their right to film police interactions.

“When I posted the first video of the traffic police in 2010, it was an information bomb,” recalls Ruslan Lazuta, a representative of the Driver Defense Society. “For the first time, people in the Republic of Kazakhstan clearly saw and learned that you can stand up for your rights and not pay bribes if you stop the inspector. Drivers know about our helpful sites and send their videos and photos for us to publish. Thanks to our resources, people are hopeful for protection and justice.”

Traffic police are also a common target of online activists in Kyrgyzstan, who use social media to encourage residents to record their interactions, challenge them when they exceed their authority, and publicly shame them.

But according to Iqbol Isakov, a political analyst based in Osh, Kyrgzystan, documenting police corruption is only effective when it targets low-level offenses and officials. He cites the case of Bolot Ibragimov as an example. In July 2015, Ibragimov confronted traffic officers on camera when they tried to extract a bribe. When the officer realized he was being filmed, he attempted to attack Ibragimov and tore the license plate off his vehicle. The video went viral, and in a rare moment of triumph for the average Kyrgyzstani, the officer in question was prosecuted.

“The internet users fight in a creative way so that officials feel ashamed of what they are doing,” says Isakov. “When everyone is laughing at them, they will do something to change their behavior – if the issue is not so serious. But when the issue is really serious, like for example in a recent case where a government officer shot a woman to death and there was no investigation — it doesn’t work. People tried to do things on the internet and get the community involved, and everyone felt sorry for the woman, but they can’t do anything. It’s too serious a crime, with too serious of a person.”

While low-level traffic cops may be responsive to online retaliation, higher ranking security officers — like the ones whose torture methods Kyrgyzstan’s Hizb-ut Tahrir members showcase in their bloody selfies — are immune from online retaliation. Isakov notes that in Kyrgyzstan online complaints rarely translate into action on the ground because the culture of fear is too pervasive.

“People will click ‘like’, but they aren’t ready to go out on the street for you,” he says.

In Uzbekistan, online citizen activism similarly tends to target low-level officials in a way that circumvents a critique of the state. “Neighborhood watch” is an Uzbek Facebook group where users post complaints about local officials’ failure to deliver basic services like gas and electricity, often in the form of satirical memes. Users in other online groups, including forums for drivers in the capital city of Tashkent, mock traffic police and use dashboard cameras to document corruption. As in Kyrgyzstan, the traffic police videos prompted a wave of public firings last year after they caught the attention of Uzbekistan’s media.

But like other Central Asian documentarians, Uzbek activists tend to separate the desire for a better standard of life from a stance against the state itself. Neither revolution nor reform is the goal — putting existing laws into meaningful practice is. Tashabbus (“Initiative”) is a website run by Uzbek lawyers who share the radical notion that state officials should obey the law. They dispense free legal advice to Uzbeks about how to avoid paying bribes, contend with corrupt bureaucrats and police, and navigate daily injustices. But they do not seek to overthrow the government — they simply want the government to honor its own precepts. In fact, in its mission statement, the organization emphasizes the extent to which its aims are in line with Uzbekistan’s existing legal order, stating that its goal is to “strengthen the rule of law in Uzbekistan” and accentuating its reliance on values — “life, freedom, honor, and dignity of the human being” — that are already enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Dilorom Abdullaeva, a lawyer who helped found Tashhabus, says the most popular subjects Uzbeks email them about are police actions, corruption, religious freedom, and family law. She says that even though the internet is ineffective at combatting corruption at the highest levels, it is essential to helping Uzbeks conceive of another way of life: “People should be educated about a ‘corruption-free’ system, because most of the younger generation can’t even imagine such a society,” she says.

Across Central Asia, restrictions on Internet use are common. All states block at least some opposition websites and have laws that prevent criticism of state officials. Central Asia’s online citizen activism against corruption has survived in part because it tends to target low-level officials like traffic police, whom state authorities will fire to make a show of fairness for the public. Citizen reluctance to denounce dictators or the overall state apparatus has also helped online documentation to continue without severe consequences, though Lazuta, of the Kazakh Drivers Defense Society, notes his group contends with lawsuits from the state.

But when Central Asians use the internet to take on dictators directly, as they did in Tajikistan in October 2014, the results can be dire.

Like citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, citizens of Tajikistan have had success using cell phones and video to humiliate corrupt local officials into compliance. In March, viral video of a Tajik traffic cop abusing his authority spurred reporting in regular media outlets and statewide discussion of corruption. Cell phone pictures taken in May by a young Tajikistani woman of police who stood by as she was mugged in Dushanbe resonated online and forced an internal affairs investigation.

In October, an organization called Group 24 comprised of Tajiks living in both Tajikistan and Russia made plans for a mass protest in the capital city of Dushanbe calling for President Emomali Rahmon to resign. Tajikistan’s government responded by cutting off access to 300 major websites that activists might use to coordinate the protest, including social media networks like Facebook and banking systems, making it impossible for ordinary Tajiks in some regions to withdraw money. Group 24 was designated an “extremist organization” by state authorities, who ordered tanks to patrol the streets of Dushanbe, prompting no one to show up to the protest. In March, Group 24’s leader, Umarali Quvvatov, who had been in Moscow during the organization of the protest, was murdered in Istanbul — an assassination many citizens and experts assume was carried out by state officials.

Group 24 was arguably the biggest and most coordinated online anti-corruption movement in Central Asia — and it ended in disaster. Their story serves as a reminder that tackling corruption at its root — the centralized state apparatus that facilitates lower level offenses — remains risky. Taijkistan is the only Central Asian state to block Facebook, which analysts from all Central Asian countries cite as more “radical” and more likely to be used by exiles and dissidents than the Russian social media networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Tajikistan’s crackdown shows how threatened authoritarian governments are by social media. Documenting everyday corruption may be a growing and tolerated trend, but targeting the state itself remains off-limits — and invites ferocious reprisals.

While state force is one barrier to citizen campaigns against corruption, Central Asian activists face another problem — the passivity of their fellow citizens.

“People don’t seem to object to corruption,” notes Baidildayeva, the Kazakhstani political analyst. “Protests are very rare in Kazakhstan, but if they happen it’s not against corruption but for economic reasons.”

Much of what passes for activism in Central Asia is accidental. Central Asia’s documentarians often do not define themselves as activists but as citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time, armed with a cell phone and a conscience. Direct actions against elites are rare, and many citizens who document everyday acts of corruption do so under a pseudonym. This new online activism also has its limitations — as citizens punished after targeting higher ranking officials know too well. There is a danger that, given the extreme difficulty and danger of confronting the state directly, only lower-level acts of corruption will be addressed, leaving the power structure that sustains them unchallenged.

That said, Central Asia’s online movement against corruption still marks a departure from the activism of the past. Prior to social media, a citizen could only hear of a sensational act of corruption through what Uzbeks call the “mish-mish” network — the rumor mill of bazaars, neighborhoods, and shared taxis. Now, eyewitnesses post photos and videos to social networking sites as events happen, making it difficult for authoritarian states to maintain the façade that “bad things don’t happen here.” The price of increased connectivity is the state’s loss of ability to control narratives of everyday life as citizens document and publicize their daily experiences with cell phones that fits in their pockets.

The photo is a screenshot of a video uploaded to YouTube by the Kazakh Driver Defense Association, in which a driver who has just been pulled over is challenging the legality of the police officers’ actions.

Photo credit: Screenshot from YouTube video by the Kazakh Driver Defense Association (ОО Общество Содействия Автомобилистам)

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics in authoritarian states. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University. Her work has been published by Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, Slate, Radio Free Europe and numerous academic journals.
Noah Tucker is the editor of and an associate at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University.