A series of February bomb explosions in Tashkent that killed 16 people and injured more than 100 prompted Uzbek authorities to crack down on press freedom and other civil liberties, already nearly nonexistent in one of the most repressive countries of the former Soviet Union.
Uzbek authorities claimed that the bomb attacks marked an attempt by Islamic militant groups to assassinate the country’s authoritarian president, Islam Karimov. Press freedom suffered greatly as a result.
Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet republic that still uses Soviet-style prosecutions to imprison journalists for lengthy periods. In August, Muhammad Bekjanov was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment and Iusuf Ruzimuradov to 15 years, for publishing the banned opposition newspaper Erk from exile in Ukraine. Both men were extradited from Ukraine in March and then put on trial in Uzbekistan along with four other dissidents.
During the high-profile trial, nearly all their fundamental rights were denied. The two Erk editors then joined radio journalist Shadi Mardiev in jail. In 1998, Mardiev was sentenced to serve 11 years in jail on defamation and extortion charges. His health has seriously deteriorated during his imprisonment.
While around half a dozen indepen-dent television stations have been launched over the past several years, they operate under tight official control. Government bureaucrats often demand the right to view programs before they air.
In November, the Interagency Coordination Commission, the government committee that regulates broadcast licensing, shut down two private television stations, ALC TV in the city of Ugrench and Aloka TV in Gulistan. Both stations were accused of operating without a license, although the decision to shut them down was clearly made with the coming elections in mind. In August, Internews-Uzbekistan, the local branch of a California-based company that supports the efforts of independent television stations in 18 developing democracies worldwide, was forced to suspend its weekly national news roundup “Zamon,” as well as the regional current- affairs program “Otkrytaya Aziya,” on the grounds that it was not properly licensed.
The December 5 parliamentary elections and the January 9, 2000, presidential elections, in which President Karimov won 92 percent of the vote, according to government figures, illustrate how Uzbekistan has subverted the institutions of democratic government. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was highly critical of both efforts. It sent a small monitoring team to the parliamentary elections but declined to monitor the presidential poll.
The OSCE also monitored the local press before the parliamentary elections. It reported that “the absence of a diverse and independent mass media stunted the development of a genuine political debate and campaign during the elections. Although the Constitution of Uzbekistan and the Law on Mass Media prohibit censorship, in reality authorities exercise a strict control on the mass media akin to censorship.” The OSCE noted that because of yearly licensing requirements and other forms of pressure, self-censorship has become prevalent.
Some 20 independent journalists won seats in the Uzbek legislature, a fact the regime seized upon to support its claim that press freedom conditions were improving. The journalists felt compelled to join the struggling democratic opposition in the hope of lobbying more effectively for the rights of their colleagues. Their efforts may be futile, however, since the legislature functions as little more than President Karimov’s rubber stamp. Observers have noted that the current regime has all but eliminated any possibility of democratic change, cautioning that Karimov’s tight grip may only further incite the militant Islamic opposition to seek his violent overthrow.
Muhammad Bekjanov, Erk IMPRISONED
Iusuf Ruzimuradov, Erk IMPRISONED
At the request of Uzbek authorities, Ukrainian police arrested Uzbek journalists Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov and extradited them to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. Bekjanov was editor of the newspaper Erk, published in Kyiv, in Ukraine, by the banned Uzbek Erk Party, and Ruzimuradov worked for the newspaper. That same day, Ukrainian police arrested and extradited another two Uzbeks, who had arrived in Kyiv to pick up copies of Erk, which they apparently intended to smuggle into Uzbekistan.
For six months, the four suspects were held and tortured in the Tashkent city jail, which observers describe as the worst prison in Uzbekistan. The arrests were part of a general Uzbek government crackdown on the Erk Party and its newspaper. On February 19, Uzbek police arrested the prominent Uzbek writer Mamadali Makhmudov, who was also accused of having links with the Erk Party. On February 24, police in the Yankatbat district in Uzbekistan arrested Bekjanov’s brother, Rashid, for distributing copies of the newspaper. Both Bekjanovs are brothers of the Erk Party’s exiled leader, Muhammad Solih.
Uzbek authorities coerced confessions from all six men. On August 18, a Tashkent court sentenced them to jail terms of between eight and 15 years for distributing a banned newspaper that contained slanderous criticism of the president (under Article 158-3 of the Uzbek penal code); participating in a banned political association (under Article 216 of the penal code); and attempting to overthrow the regime (under Article 159 of the penal code).
In addition to these charges, Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov were convicted of illegally leaving Uzbekistan and damaging their Uzbek passports. They were sentenced to 14 and 15 years in prison, respectively.
ALC TV CENSORED
Aloka TV CENSORED
Only days before national parliamentary elections, authorities halted transmissions of ALC TV in Ugrench and Aloka TV in Gulistan, two of the most popular and commercially successful private TV stations in Uzbekistan.
The Interagency Coordination Commission, the government body charged with distributing broadcast licenses, claimed that both stations’ licenses had expired. However, both TV stations submitted renewal applications in August and September, before the annual deadline. Meanwhile, five other commercial stations continued to broadcast with expired licenses at the end of the year.
Local officials also sealed off ALC TV’s studios and took control of its transmitter, claiming that the station had failed to guard its tower sufficiently from so-called Wahhabists (Uzbek authorities use this term loosely for all Islamist militants) or other “dangerous” forces.
Both station managers said authorities wished to block their coverage of independent candidates for the national legislature. Although censorship is formally illegal in Uzbekistan, authorities pressure all media to submit their work for official approval. ALC TV had reportedly received complaints from officials that the station aired programs without submitting them for prior review.