Increased international aid and the presence of U.S. troops using Uzbekistan as a base for the “war on terror” have focused new international attention on the country, forcing President Islam Karimov to pay lip service to press freedom. “Today, there are no boundaries to the flow of information, and any attempts to restrict freedom of speech are absolutely pointless and useless,” Karimov told journalists at a June 27 celebration of Uzbekistan’s Press Day.
With much fanfare, Karimov’s government ended prior censorship of newspapers in May 2002, yet the change was almost entirely undermined when the government subsequently pressured editors to censor articles themselves. Some frightened editors even hired the state’s former censors to minimize the risk of publishing anything that might be deemed offensive.
In addition, 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 question or debate government policy.
Those who do try to push government limits on censorship receive swift punishment. Uzbekistan remains the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, with five in prison at year’s end. In August, Ruslan Sharipov, former head of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU), was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail on spurious charges of sodomy, managing prostitutes, and having sexual relations with minors. Authorities have harassed Sharipov for several years because of critical articles he contributed to the Russian news agency Prima and protest letters he wrote to the president for the UIJU describing police abuses and press freedom violations.
Gayrat Mehliboyev, a freelance journalist who wrote occasionally for the Tashkent newspaper Hurriyyat, was sentenced to seven years in prison in February for writing a political commentary about Islam and allegedly sympathizing with a banned Islamic opposition party. Madzhid Abduraimov, a correspondent with the national weekly Yangi Asr, was sentenced to 13 years in August 2001 for writing about corruption and remained jailed at year’s end. 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.
In May, the government fired the political editor of Uzbek state television after the station broadcast embarrassing footage of audience members sleeping during a speech Karimov delivered at a conference in the capital, Tashkent. And in March, administration officials dismissed the editor of Hurriyat for publishing articles about child poverty and mismanagement in the cotton industry, The Associated Press reported.
State-run and state-funded media dominate the airwaves and newsstands, churning out dreary reports about cotton harvests, recent government decrees, and Karimov’s daily meetings. Many citizens prefer to get their news through gossip at the bazaar, the Internet, Russian television, and international radio broadcasts from the BBC and the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
The government makes every effort to block these alternative sources of news by intimidating stringers for foreign media outlets, denying international radio broadcasters access to local frequencies, and blocking access to religious, opposition, human rights, and news Web sites.
In January, the government’s monopoly Internet service provider, UzPAK, blocked several Russia-based news Web sites after they posted articles by an anonymous analyst about government corruption in Karimov’s inner circle. In February, police arrested freelance journalist Oleg Sarapulov as he left an Internet café in Tashkent and detained him for two days because he had printed several articles from centralasia.ru, a Russia-based news Web site that focuses on Central Asia.
Senior government officials often make threatening phone calls to editors outlining political guidelines and editorial instructions for news coverage. Journalists refer to these calls as telefonaya pravo, or “law of the telephone.” In March, meanwhile, Foreign Minster Sodyk Safaev summoned leading editors to his office to request that they provide pro-U.S. coverage of the war in Iraq, according to the German government-funded broadcasting agency Deutsche Welle. In December, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Cabinet issued a decree forcing media outlets to re-register with authorities and subjecting newsletters published by nongovernmental human rights organizations to the same media regulations as newspapers.
The country’s politicized and secretive Interagency Coordination Committee, which issues licenses for broadcast outlets, only gives local and regional broadcasting licenses to pro-government businesspeople and organizations that concentrate on entertainment programming.