AS PRESIDENT ISLAM KARIMOV’S GOVERNMENT CONTINUED its harsh crackdown on Islamic militants, officials kept local media on a tight leash. Uzbek human rights workers, themselves targets of bureaucratic harassment and violence, condemned numerous violations of the rights of their fellow citizens, including journalists.
In April, CPJ raised the plight of three imprisoned Uzbek journalists in testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) at a hearing in Washington, D.C. The cases were also outlined in a letter to the U.S. Department of State prior to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Central Asia later that month.
In two separate letters to President Karimov, CPJ urged the release of radio reporter Shodi Mardiev on humanitarian grounds. Mardiev’s 11-year sentence for defamation and extortion was cut in half under two presidential decrees, but he still had about three years to serve in a notorious penal colony, where his health was rapidly deteriorating due to the appalling living conditions.
Muhammad Bekjanov and Iusuf Ruzimuradov of the banned opposition newspaper Erk continued to serve 14- and 15-year sentences, respectively, for their involvement with the paper. Local human rights workers told CPJ that both men were being held in penal colonies and that Bekjanov was in poor health.
ALC TV in the city of Urgench, one of the few remaining independent stations in Uzbekistan, was effectively closed when the Interagency Coordination Commission, the government body that regulates broadcast licensing, refused repeatedly to renew the station’s license.
Government domination of the media, including the Internet, is all but absolute in Uzbekistan. Close allies of the president or other government officials own the main media companies. The government has a monopoly on printing presses and newspaper distribution, and it finances the main newspapers.
Its chief weapon, though, is fear. Local journalists generally shy away from subjects that could land them in trouble. The extremely vague Law on the Protection of State Secrets encourages journalists to withdraw controversial material before it reaches the censor. In an extremely rare instance of prior censorship, the State Press Committee reviews articles before publication, and can order any material withdrawn.
TV ALC, one of the few independent stations in Uzbekistan, continued to contest its broadcast ban, filing a second appeal with the district court on March 7.
The ban was imposed by the government’s Interagency Coordination Committee (ICC) on June 7, 1999. On March 3, the station lost an initial appeal in a court in the town of Urgench. It was the third time in five years that the government had suspended the station, leading TV ALC to accuse authorities of seeking to drive them permanently off the air.
The ICC regulates broadcasting licenses and is made up of representatives from several government agencies. Under a 1998 regulation that all stations must reregister before receiving permission to broadcast, it has used its regional offices to clamp down on independent television in Uzbekistan.
Aloqa TV, in the town of Gulistan, was closed on similar grounds in November 1999, but chose not to appeal the decision. At the same time, other stations less critical of the government, such as Orbita in Yangiabad, were allowed to continue broadcasting pending receipt of a new license.
On July 20, the Interagency Coordination Committee, headed by deputy Prime Minister Khamidullo Karamatov, officially refused to renew TV ALC’s license. The stated reasons were that the station lacked the necessary recommendation from the local authorities, and that the State Press Committee insisted that the renewal not be granted, according to the station director.