Court convicts Internews staffers, rejects office closure

New York, August 5, 2005—A judge in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, convicted two staffers of Internews Network, a U.S.-based media training and advocacy organization, on Thursday of producing television programming without a license and publishing information illegally. Former Internews director Khalida Anarbayeva and accountant Olga Narmuradova will not have to serve the prescribed six-month jail sentences under terms of a presidential amnesty covering women, but they will have criminal records, according to press reports and CPJ sources.

The judge rejected the prosecution’s motion to close the local office of Internews, saying the request should be made in civil court. The prosecution hasn’t announced its intentions, but Internews Network’s country director, Catherine Eldridge, said she expects the matter will go to civil court, The Associated Press reported.

The trial of the two Internews staffers began on July 18. Proceedings were supposed to be open to the public, but the judge ordered journalists, representatives of media and human rights organizations, and international diplomats out of the courtroom, according to Masha Rasner, Internews Network’s Washington, D.C., representative.

When delivering the verdict yesterday, the presiding judge said that Internews Network had “started meddling in the politics of Uzbekistan and in the politics of the president and that’s why the proceedings were instituted,” Internews said in a prepared statement.

Internews Network said it had not produced any information without a license; instead the group had trained Uzbek television stations to produce their own reports on topics such as human rights, the AP reported. “Internews does not hold the production rights in any of the stations it has trained; the rights and license belong to the stations,” Rasner told CPJ.

“This was a politicized trial designed to quash efforts to train local journalists to report important news,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Uzbek authorities to halt their harassment of Internews Network, and to expunge these specious charges from the records of these two staffers.”

Regardless of the potential closure, the Tashkent office of Internews is unable to operate. Its bank account was frozen by the Central Bank in Tashkent in August 2004 without official explanation, Internews told CPJ.

Internews has long been at odds with Uzbek authorities. In September last year, three months ahead of parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan, a Tashkent court shut Internews Network’s local affiliate, Internews-Uzbekistan, for six months, for technical violations such as failure to register a logo.

The criminal proceedings against Internews Network staffers come amid Uzbekistan authorities’ broad campaign of harassment of independent journalists and media whose reporting diverges from official government views. Authorities stepped up their crackdown on independent news after the May 13 unrest in the northeast city of Andijan, during which security forces fired at antigovernment demonstrators, killing between 500 and 1,000 civilians, according to local and international human rights organizations and eyewitness accounts.

Read CPJ’s letter to President Islam Karimov, protesting the crackdown.