New York, May 13, 2005—Uzbek authorities shuttered several foreign and domestic media outlets today during massive anti-government protests in the northeastern city of Andijan, leaving citizens without access to independent news about the unrest, according to local and international press reports.
Authorities blocked access to the foreign television channels CNN, BBC, and Moscow-based NTV at noon after 4,000 protesters stormed a prison in Andijan, freed up to 2,000 inmates, and seized the city administration building earlier in the day, according to press reports.
Major news Web sites such as Ferghana.ru, Lenta.ru, and Gazeta.ru were inaccessible for several hours in the country, according to local press reports. In Andijan, authorities took the popular radio station Didor off the air. Journalists said the city was unreachable by mobile telephone and had only limited landline connections.
Protests grew throughout the day with some 50,000 residents eventually taking to the streets to call for the resignation of President Islam Karimov’s administration. Soldiers opened fire against demonstrators, killing at least nine and wounding 34, according to international press reports. Karimov flew to Andijan late today as neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan closed their borders with Uzbekistan.
Public resentment toward the government has been building in recent weeks over the prosecution of 23 popular local businessman who were accused of Islamic extremism, press reports said. The businessmen, who were among the freed inmates, had been accused of membership in the Akromiya religious group. The government accuses Akromists of seeking the overthrow of Uzbekistan’s secular government.
A protester who spoke by phone with the Tashkent bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said demonstrators acted in a “desperate attempt” to release the businessmen from what they believe is a politically motivated prosecution. The trial against the businessmen finished this week with the prosecution calling for lengthy prison sentences.
Andijan is the main city in the impoverished Ferghana Valley, a stronghold of Islamic activism and resistance to Karimov’s dictatorial rule. The businessmen provide employment to thousands of people in Andijan, The Associated Press reported.
“We call on Uzbek authorities to restore access to independent news sources immediately,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “It is unacceptable for a government to block media outlets at a time of crisis, when information is needed the most.”