Attacks on the Press   |   Uzbekistan

Attacks on the Press 2007: Uzbekistan

UZBEKISTAN

In power for nearly two decades, President Islam Karimov had little trouble securing another seven-year term in office. He faced three candidates but no genuine opposition in a December election that international observers said was neither free nor fair. Though constitutional term limits seemed to constrain the president from seeking re-election at all, the Central Election Commission cleared Karimov for another run without bothering to explain its reasoning. Throughout, the regime continued to suppress dissent and independent voices.
Tashkent urged the European Union to lift sanctions imposed after the bloody 2005 crackdown on antigovernment protesters in the eastern city of Andijan. But Karimov’s authoritarian regime did not change its course on press freedom and human rights, many EU sanctions remained in place, and the divide separating Uzbekistan and the West continued to widen. Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Norov said during a March meeting with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that his country’s sovereignty should be respected and that Europe should not lecture Uzbekistan on human rights and democracy issues, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. Rather, “it is necessary to take into consideration the countries’ national traditions, history, and the mentality of our peoples,” Norov said.

Independent journalists affiliated with Western media outlets were singled out for harassment. Umida Niyazova, who reported on politics and human rights for RFE/RL and the independent Central Asia news Web site Oasis, spent three and a half months in detention and endured daily interrogations that lasted up to 15 hours, according to reports issued by news and human rights organizations.

Niyazova, who also contributed reporting to international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Internews Network, was arrested in January after arriving at the Tashkent airport from Kyrgyzstan. She was charged with carrying and distributing subversive literature—human rights reports about Andijan that she had saved on her laptop—and crossing the border illegally. On May 1, according to press reports, Niyazova was convicted and sentenced to a seven-year prison term following a trial riddled with procedural problems. The proceedings, despite being billed as open to the public, were closed to reporters and diplomats, reports said. Only one family member was allowed in the courtroom, and observers were forbidden from taking notes.

Following an international outcry, including protests from CPJ, a Tashkent appellate panel suspended Niyazova’s jail term on May 8, effectively setting her free but leaving intact her conviction. The release appeared to be timed to EU discussions on the Andijan sanctions. On May 9, CPJ sent a letter to the EU urging that it consider Uzbekistan’s appalling press freedom record when making its decision.

The EU had imposed an arms embargo and a travel ban on senior Uzbek officials after Tashkent resisted calls for an independent inquiry into the killing of hundreds of civilians in Andijan in 2005. Meeting in mid-October, EU foreign ministers partially lifted the travel ban but left the embargo in place. “After six months we want to see some improvement in the human rights situation in Uzbekistan,” said Deputy Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, the International Herald Tribune reported. The travel ban, lifted against four officials, remained in place for eight others, he said.

A week later, a prominent Kyrgyz journalist of Uzbek ethnicity was slain in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, across the border from Andijan. Alisher Saipov, editor of the Uzbek-language weekly Siyosat (Politics), was shot three times by an unidentified gunman as he left the newspaper’s offices on October 23. In its six months of publication, Siyosat had grown popular in the Uzbek-dominated eastern end of the Ferghana Valley. Saipov, 26, also covered Uzbekistan’s political and social issues as a stringer for RFE/RL, Voice of America, and the Central Asia news Web site Ferghana. An active supporter of Andijan refugees and the exiled Uzbek opposition, he had received numerous anonymous threats prior to his death.

Kyrgyz authorities opened a criminal investigation amid speculation that Uzbek agents were behind the slaying. While the international journalist community denounced Saipov’s killing, the Uzbek state-controlled media waged a smear campaign against the journalist, calling him a traitor who tried to destabilize the country with his reporting. Authorities blocked domestic access to independent Web sites that reported on the case, according to the Germany-based exile news site Uznews.

Uzbekistan held five reporters behind bars in late year, making it the region’s second-leading jailer of journalists, behind only Azerbaijan. The lengths to which authorities have gone to silence dissent were illustrated by the case of Dzhamshid Karimov, former correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a nephew of the president. Karimov disappeared in the eastern city of Jizzakh on September 12, 2006, and was later discovered in a psychiatric clinic in the neighboring city of Samarkand, CPJ sources said. He had been forcibly hospitalized by local authorities after a secret court hearing; government officials did not release any information about the court proceedings or permit independent experts to examine Karimov, according to international press reports. Uznews reported that his family was unable to find a defense lawyer willing to take on the case.

Authorities also targeted correspondents working for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, one of the last foreign news agencies with stringers operating in the country. Natalya Bushuyeva and Yuri Chernogayev were among a number of Deutsche Welle contributors who were accused of tax evasion, concealing income, and working without accreditation. Bushuyeva fled the country after authorities confiscated her banking records, interrogated her at length about Deutsche Welle’s news practices, and filed criminal charges against her in March. Chernogayev stopped reporting, according to CPJ sources.

Authorities also tightened their grip on the Internet. While Karimov continued to proclaim that the Internet was impossible to monitor, his government regularly blocked domestic access to regional independent news Web sites such as Ferghana, Centrasia, Gazeta, Lenta, and Vesti, as well as sites maintained by Western broadcasters such as the BBC and RFE/RL, according to CPJ research.

The government took an aggressively resistant stance toward international human rights organizations. Authorities consistently refused to accredit Human Rights Watch staff, and in April, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour was denied a visa during her tour of the region. According to the IWPR, officials in Tashkent told Arbour they would be unable to meet with her because the timing of her visit was inconvenient.

Further distancing itself from the West, the Uzbek government strengthened its ties with Russia and China through oil and natural gas contracts and economic cooperation agreements. Energy cooperation with these two powers was further expanded during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) annual meeting in Kyrgyzstan in August. Initially founded as the Shanghai Five group in 1996, the SCO is a regional association that includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In 2007, the SCO focused on energy and security cooperation, and the year ended with the parties signing an agreement “on neighborly relations.” The agreement states that the SCO will create a “unified energy market,” distributing its resources of natural gas and oil to member countries that need them and exporting reserves to the global energy market, the news Web site EurasiaNet reported.

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