Attacks on the Press 2001: Uzbekistan

Torture of political and religious dissidents remains commonplace under the brutal regime of President Islam Karimov. In February, writer Emin Usman died in detention, and the July death of imprisoned human rights activist Shovriq Rusimorodov confirmed the deteriorating political situation. Karimov has also cracked down on civil liberties by jailing thousands of Muslims under the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism.

The state of press freedom in Uzbekistan is no less bleak. CPJ detailed the systematic repression that journalists suffer in its report, “Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of Dissidents,” which was presented to the U.S. House subcommittees on International Operations and Human Rights and Middle East and South Asia on July 18, 2001.

Control of the media, including the Internet, is pervasive in Uzbekistan: The government monopolizes printing presses and newspaper distribution, finances the main newspapers, and has the power to grant or deny licenses to media outlets. Uzbekistan is also one of the few countries in the world that practices prior censorship. The State Press Committee can order any material to be withdrawn, and it is not unusual for newspaper editors or radio producers to receive phone calls from officials demanding revisions.

Fighting the censor is a risky business, as Alo Khodzhayev, editor-in-chief of the Russian-language daily Tashkentskaya Pravda, learned when he was dismissed on July 7. Authorities said Khodzhayev’s position had been eliminated, but the editor told CPJ that the move came in reprisal for an exhibition, titled “Without Censorship,” that his paper opened in mid-June. The exhibition included a wall covered with newspaper articles that Uzbek authorities had banned.

In the summer edition of Dangerous Assignments, CPJ’s biannual magazine, an Uzbek journalist writing under a pseudonym gave a detailed report of the local censorship regime in the country.

In 2001, 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 publication. According to a human rights activist incarcerated with Bekjanov, prison authorities have treated him with particular harshness, including torture.

In a positive development, Shodi Mardiev, a reporter with the state-run Samarkand radio station, was released on January 5, 2002, under a presidential amnesty. In June 1998, Mardiev was sentenced to 11 years in prison for defamation and extortion after he produced a broadcast that satirized the alleged corruption of a local government official. The journalist’s health was greatly damaged by the ordeal. Shortly after his arrest in November 1997, he suffered two brain hemorrhages while in a pretrial detention center. He was hospitalized twice in 1999 for a heart condition and experienced pain and difficulty in walking.

In April, local journalists formed the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan. The need for such an organization was dramatically underscored weeks later, when Security Ministry police tried unsuccessfully to beat up union president Ruslan Sharipov. On August 31, Sharipov was briefly detained and questioned by the police after publishing a series of articles on human rights violations in Uzbekistan. In July, Interior Ministry officials interrogated another member of the new union, Asadullo Ortikov, and ordered him to stop criticizing the government in print.

Serious threats led one journalist, Shukhrat Babadjanov, to flee into exile. Babadjanov, director of the independent TV station ALC in Urgench, had been fighting authorities for nearly two years after the politically motivated closure of his station. On June 28, he was again refused a broadcasting license. On July 24, he was ordered to vacate the station’s premises. Authorities then ordered him to appear at the prosecutor’s office in the capital, Tashkent, on August 6, to face charges of criminal forgery. Instead, he fled and later told CPJ he feared that authorities intended to silence him by putting him in prison on spurious charges.

UPI’s Tashkent correspondent, Marina Kozlova, was followed and harassed by police on three separate occasions during the summer of 2001. Kozlova told CPJ that the police targeted her for criticizing Uzbek security organizations.

In March, several Uzbek human rights groups and opposition politicians charged that the head of the Tashkent bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was not airing the criticisms of opposition members. While RFE/RL’s head office in Washington, D.C., denied the charges, some local RFE/RL staffers agreed, accusing bureau chief Aziz Dzhurayev of being too close to Uzbek authorities, of censoring reports, and of wrongfully dismissing several of the service’s journalists.

Uzbekistan shares a 115-mile (190-kilometer) border with Afghanistan and saw an influx of foreign journalists during the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Uzbek government gave U.S. troops permission to use the Khanabad airfield in the south of the country for operations in Afghanistan. There has been no official information about any security guarantees or economic benefits that Uzbekistan hopes to gain from backing the United States. Independent Uzbek journalists and human rights activists, however, told CPJ they are concerned that the new rapprochement may lead the U.S. government to soften its criticism of Karimov’s repressive regime.

May 7

Marina Kozlova, United Press International

The Ministry of Internal Affairs denied Kozlova press accreditation on the grounds that she dressed inappropriately and had the wrong hairstyle for a journalist.

Kozlova, a reporter for United Press International (UPI) who is known for asking senior government officials hard-hitting questions, was also accused of “defiant behaviour.”

After protests from UPI and the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, Kozlova’s accreditation was issued on May 17.

In a July 19 incident, Kozlova was followed by two men, one in police uniform, while traveling to a shopping center with her mother. Kozlova believes the intimidation resulted from her published criticims of Uzbek security authorities.

July 7

Alo Khodzhayev, Tashkentskaya Pravda

Khodzhayev, editor of the state-owned daily Tashkentskaya Pravda, was fired after Tashkent regional authorities eliminated his job.

The groundwork for Khodzhayev’s dismissal was laid by a July 5 edict that announced changes in the paper’s organizational and financial structure.

The Russian-language Tashkenskaya Pravda was merged with its Uzbek-language partner, Toshkent Khakikati, under a single editor. Many analysts, and Khodzhayev himself, say the action came in response to the paper’s frequent criticisms of censorship and the ruling regime.

The final straw for the authorities, according to Khodzhayev, came on June 18, when the newspaper organized a public exhibition called “Without Censorship.” Part of the exibition was a wall covered with newspaper articles that Uzbek authorities had banned.

July 24

Shukhrat Babadjanov, TV ALC

Babadjanov, director of TV ALC, an independent station based in the town of Urgench, was charged with forgery.

The charges relate to a 10-year-old letter of recommendation for Babadjanov that was evidently written by Babadjanov himself but signed by Ruzi Chariyev, a prominent Uzbek painter. The journalist, who is also a well-known artist, was applying to join the Uzbekistan Union of Artists. He claims that Chariyev asked him to draft the letter because Chariyev does not write well in Uzbek.

According to information received by CPJ, Babadjanov was forced to flee Uzbekistan after the Tashkent prosecutor’s office summoned him for questioning on August 6 in connection with the case.

These charges came after prolonged government harassment of Babadjanov and TV ALC, which was forced off the air in November 1999 despite protests from thousands of Urgench residents and appeals from the international community.

Since the closure, the Uzbek government has repeatedly denied Babadjanov’s applications for a new broadcasting license. On July 24, 2001, Babadjanov was ordered to vacate his station’s premises within a week because he had been refused a license again.

CPJ protested this case in an August 14 letter to Uzbek president Islam Karimov.

August 1

Madzhid Abduraimov, Yangi Asr

Abduraimov, a correspondent with the national weekly Yangi Asr, was convicted of extortion and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

In a January 15 article in Yangi Asr, Abduraimov charged that Nusrat Radzhabov, head of the Boisunsky District grain production company Zagotzerno, had misappropriated state funds and falsified documents.

Abduraimov also accused the businessman of killing a 12-year-old in a car accident and alleged that Radzhabov’s teenage son was part of a group that had beaten and raped a 13-year-old boy.

Radzhabov claims that Abduraimov asked him for money and threatened to publish more accusations unless he was paid. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Radzhabov tried to sue Abduraimov for slander, but dropped the suit after a local prosecutor’s investigation confirmed the facts in the article.

Authorities arrested Abduraimov and accused him of receiving a US$6,000 bribe. He and a witness quoted by the IWPR claimed that a man threw the money into the back seat of his car immediately before police stopped his vehicle, searched it, and arrested him.

Abduraimov was held in Termez Regional Police Department jail until his trial began in Termez City Court on July 4.

According to Abduraimov, the court proceedings were influenced by local officials who objected to his reporting on corruption in the oil business. His request for a change of venue was not granted. He refused to attend the hearings and was sentenced in absentia.

Abduraimov is known for his investigative reporting and critical stance toward local law enforcement bodies and authorities. The journalist and his family have been persecuted for several years with threatening phone calls, and his son was reportedly beaten by police and sentenced to four months in jail for disorderly conduct.

Supporters say Abduraimov was most likely framed, and it is not known where he is being held. His family plans to appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court.