Letters   |   Uzbekistan

EU should press Uzbekistan on news media crisis

January 19, 2011 

José Manuel Barroso 
President of the European Commission 
1049 Brussels, Belgium 

Via facsimile: +32 (0)2 296 79 12

Dear President Barroso,

We're writing in advance of your January 24 meeting in Brussels with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to urge you to raise Uzbekistan's grave press freedom conditions and to make clear to Karimov that any improvement of the country's relationship with Europe is dependent on him taking steps to fix the press freedom crisis. The European Union made clear it is committed to human rights in Central Asia in its 2009 plan, "The European Union and Central Asia: The New Partnership in Action."

In response to the 2005 Andijan massacre, the Council of Europe imposed economic and political sanctions against Karimov's government, yet little has changed. With at least six journalists in jail (three of them imprisoned during the sanctions period, from 2005-2009) Uzbekistan remains the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. Their prison terms vary from seven to 15 years behind bars.

No case depicts the full extent of repression as that of the president's own nephew, journalist Dzhamshid Karimov, who has been held in a psychiatric hospital for more than four years in retaliation for his critical reporting. In September 2006, security agents kidnapped him off the street in his native city of Jizzakh and threw him in a clinic in a neighboring region. He has been held incommunicado since. No lawyer dares represent him, local sources told CPJ, as no one will dispute what is commonly viewed as a presidential decree.

In a recent disturbing trend, Uzbek authorities have begun to use so-called "experts" at the State Agency for Press and Information to indict the few remaining independent voices. Since 2009, these "experts" have provided testimony that helped convict three independent reporters and to imprison one civic activist on bogus criminal charges of defamation and insult. Among them were prominent photojournalist Umida Akhmedova and Abdumalik Boboyev, a local correspondent for the U.S. government-sponsored broadcaster Voice of America. Based on the alleged experts' opinions, prosecutors concluded that Akhmedova's photo series depicting life in rural Uzbekistan and Boboyev's critical articles have "insulted the Uzbek people and its tradition." The Uzbek Criminal Code contains no such provisions.

Uzbek security services continue to intimidate independent reporters by inviting them for "informal talks" at their offices, during which the journalists have discovered that their every step was being monitored by authorities. In 2010, Uzbek prosecutors phoned--instead of sending officially required summonses--at least six reporters and asked them to come by their office, the journalists told CPJ. Journalists were interrogated without their lawyer present on their current and past reporting assignments, and presented with detailed personal dossiers compiled by authorities about the journalists and their families.

Censorship has been pervasive in the country since the 2005 crackdown. To this day, the government continues to block domestic access to critical international websites, and jams foreign broadcasters it expelled from the country that same year, sources told CPJ. The banned media include regional news websites Ferghana, CentrAsia, Uznews, EurasiaNet, Voice of Freedom, Lenta, and broadcasting services of the BBC Uzbek Service, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

In a rare development, two news anchors for state-controlled Yoshlar TV publicly described censorship practices at work in August. At a press conference held at the Tashkent-based human rights group Ezgulik, the anchors said that government officials pre-screened their programs, censored reports they found critical of the state, and instructed the journalists to present information from the government-owned news agency. "State officials of any level--from the presidential administration and security council to bank clerks, tax police agents, and customs officers--can interfere in our work," the anchors said.

We urge you to make clear that relations with Europe are dependent on press freedom and human rights, and that you will stand by the principles outlined in the EU-Central Asia action plan.

We ask you to publicly call on Karimov to release all our imprisoned colleagues. We also ask that you encourage him to cease official intimidation of the independent reporters, unblock independent news websites, and allow foreign broadcasters back in the country. As a signatory to U.N. treaties and OSCE declarations, the Uzbek government is obligated to respect and protect journalists' right to report without fear of harassment, and the public's right to receive uncensored information. By pressing Karimov on these issues, you will make clear the EU's steadfast commitment to defending press freedom in Uzbekistan.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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