Uzbekistan’s stagnant economy and Soviet-style dictatorship continued to fuel popular discontent in 2004, and President Islam Karimov brutally suppressed dissenters to -maintain his control of the country. Karimov stonewalled U.S. and Western pressure for reforms throughout the year, cultivating his image as an American ally in the “war on -terror” and calculating that the Bush administration was more focused on retaining access to a local military air base than on human rights abuses.
A growing Islamist insurgency and a string of deadly bombings in March and July prompted authorities to round up hundreds of suspects, step up harassment of women wearing Islamic dress, and clamp down on the domestic media.
State television downplayed the March bombings. In the immediate aftermath, it broadcast a program on hunting in France and led the evening news with a report on the Lithuanian president’s visit, according to the BBC. Three independent radio stations were reprimanded for reporting on the bombings before the government issued an official statement.
With the domestic press stifled, many Uzbeks rely on foreign news sources such as Russian state television; Moscow-based Web sites; and broadcasts from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Government officials, security agents, and Uzbek state media harangued and harassed foreign media—particularly RFE/RL and local journalists from the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)—for their coverage of the bomb attacks and the government crackdown that followed. On April 15, the National Security Service threatened to prosecute Tulkin Karaev, an IWPR correspondent in the southern Kashkandariya Region, in retaliation for his reporting on a wave of arrests of suspected Islamic activists, the Tashkent-based press freedom group Arena reported.
Local reporting on suicide bombings that struck Tashkent in late July was even more subdued than coverage of the March blasts, focusing on statements made by government officials and lacking analysis, Eurasianet.org reported. In this oppressive environment, journalists frequently practice self-censorship.
Authorities also continued to block Web sites that provide independent news, including those of Arena and the new Uzbek-language BBC.
Throughout 2004, authorities cracked down on local branches of Western organizations. The Foreign Ministry denied accreditation to IWPR in May and October 2003, and in April 2004 the Justice Ministry revoked the registration of the Open Society Institute, a New York–based pro-democracy foundation.
The pace of closures intensified in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections. In September, a court shuttered the Tashkent office of the U.S. media training organization Internews for six months for violating technical regulations. Internews Uzbekistan Director Khalida Anarbaeva said five independent TV stations receiving support from Internews were taken off the air in August, IWPR reported.
Journalists who criticize government policies face a broad range of punishments. The state daily Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East) fired journalist Sergei Yezhkov in January after he wrote several articles about corruption and social problems and participated in an international conference on press freedom.
Uzbekistan remains the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, with four behind bars at year’s end. Ortikali Namazov, editor of the state newspaper Pop Tongi (Dawn of the Pop District) in the northeastern Namangan Region, was convicted on embezzlement charges and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison after publishing a series of articles criticizing alleged local government abuses. Gayrat Mehliboyev, a freelance journalist who wrote occasionally for the Tashkent newspaper Hurriyat (Liberty), was sentenced to seven years in prison in February 2003 for political commentary sympathizing with a banned Islamic opposition party. Mukhammad Bekdzhanov, editor of Erk (Freedom), 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 the paper and criticizing the government.
Two journalists were released from prison in 2004. Madzid Abduraimov, a journalist with the national weekly Yangi Asr (New Century) who was imprisoned for three years after criticizing authorities in the southern Surkhandarya Region, was released in April but struggled to reclaim his home and personal belongings, which authorities had confiscated.
Ruslan Sharipov, former head of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan, was released from prison to house arrest in March but fled the country in June, when authorities tried to transfer him to a more isolated part of the country. In August 2003, Sharipov 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 articles he wrote for the independent Moscow-based Prima news agency and the now defunct Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan about police abuses and press freedom violations.
While some international aid was cut in response to the country’s poor human rights and press freedom records, Western governments shied away from challenging Karimov. The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development canceled US$31 million in economic aid in April. Three months later, the Bush administration cut US$18 million in aid, but it continued to channel tens of millions of dollars in assistance through other programs.