Increased international aid and the presence of U.S. troops who use Uzbekistan as a base for the “war on terror” inspired President Islam Karimov to pay lip service to press freedom. With much fanfare, Karimov’s government ended prior censorship of newspapers–one of the few systems in the world that required papers to submit copy to censors in advance of publication. Yet the change was almost completely undermined when the government subsequently pressured editors to censor articles themselves. Some papers even hired the state’s former censors to minimize the risk of publishing anything that might be deemed offensive.
Hopes for more freedom had been raised among journalists on May 7, when news broke that the State Press Committee had dismissed the director of its Agency for the Protection of State Secrets. A week later, government censors stopped reviewing newspapers prior to publication. During the next few weeks, local newspapers began publishing articles on previously taboo topics, such as unemployment, corruption in the education system, and past police abuses.
But the government’s action soon proved hollow. At a meeting in the capital, Tashkent, shortly after the director of the state secrets agency was fired, State Press Committee head Rustam Shugalyamov warned the editors of Uzbekistan’s six official newspapers that authorities would now closely monitor newspaper content after publication.
Although the consequences of editorial error were not specified, the presidential administration was quick to set an example. On July 19, the editor-in-chief of the Tashkent weekly Mohiyat, Abdukayum Yuldashev, was removed from his post for several weeks for publishing an article about press freedom written by Karim Bakhryev, an independent journalist whose work had not appeared in print for years because the Karimov administration had blacklisted him.
Even without official censorship, the country’s highly centralized government and vigilant security service, along with the police, courts, prosecutors, inspectors, and other state agencies–all of which remain firmly under Karimov’s control–engender widespread fear and self-censorship among journalists, who rarely, if ever, question or debate government policy.
In June, a CPJ delegation consisting of board member Peter Arnett, editorial and program director Richard Murphy, and Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Alex Lupis conducted a nine-day mission to Uzbekistan to investigate press freedom conditions there. After meeting with senior government officials to discuss conditions in the country, CPJ held a press conference in Tashkent to present to the government a list of recommendations for improving press freedom, including the release of imprisoned journalists and the reform or abolishment of politicized media regulatory bodies. Soon after the press conference, which was attended by about 50 international and local journalists and widely covered in the media, presidential spokesman Sherzod Kudratkhodzhayev dismissed CPJ’s recommendations, saying they were based on conversations with “resentful” journalists. CPJ’s findings were published in a report titled “Back in the USSR.”
On July 3, Karimov decreed that the old State Press Committee should be replaced by a new state-run press agency with a mandate to monitor the media, according to local press reports. The Uzbek Press and Information Agency has the power to suspend media licenses and official certificates of registration for “systematic” breaches of Uzbekistan’s restrictive media and information laws. It is also supposed to ensure that the government does not violate the rights of media outlets.
Local independent journalists are skeptical of the agency’s willingness to defend them, however, considering that its new director, Rustam Shagulyamov, is a Karimov loyalist and former chairman of the State Press Committee.
Uzbekistan remains the foremost jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, with three journalists in prison. Madzhid Abduraimov, a correspondent with the national weekly Yangi Asr, was sentenced to 13 years in August 2001 for writing about corruption. Mukhammad Bekdzhanov, editor of Erk, a newspaper published by the banned opposition Erk party, and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, an Erk employee, were sentenced to 14 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, in August 1999 for distributing Erk and criticizing the
government. During its mission to Uzbekistan in June, CPJ uncovered reports that more journalists have been imprisoned for their work and continues to investigate those
cases. Earlier in the year, however, authorities had amnestied several hundred political prisoners, including Shodi Mardiev, a 63-year-old reporter with the state-run radio station in Samarkand, who was imprisoned in 1997 for his critical stance toward government officials.