President Islam Karimov engaged in a full-fledged offensive against the independent press. Unrelenting government persecution drove out more than a dozen foreign correspondents and local reporters working for foreign media; continual harassment forced at least two news agencies and a media training organization to close their offices. Karimov and his allies used trumped-up charges of terrorism and extremism to jail media critics, political opponents, and human rights advocates. At least three journalists were imprisoned, and a number of others were detained for brief periods. Using police intimidation and a state-media smear campaign, the Karimov regime made clear that it would not tolerate any deviation from its official, sanitized version of events.
The year’s defining moment came on May 13, “Bloody Friday,” when demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan stormed a local prison and freed 23 businessmen they said were unjustly accused of Islamic extremism. Protests in downtown Bobur Square later grew to include an estimated 10,000 people upset by pervasive poverty and unemployment in the surrounding Ferghana Valley. Although demonstrators called for the resignation of Karimov’s government, independent journalists said the protests were peaceful.
Government security forces opened fire on the crowd without warning, according to independent accounts, killing between 500 and 1,000 civilians and drawing comparisons to the Chinese government’s brutal 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Uzbek authorities denied the high number of civilian deaths, putting the death toll at 187 and claiming that security forces had no choice but to shoot at the “armed Islamic terrorists” who had tried to “overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan,” state media said.
Authorities blocked foreign television, including CNN, BBC, and the Russian networks REN and NTV, from gaining access to Andijan. The popular Andijan radio station Didor was taken off the air. State television broadcast only brief, official statements without footage, and authorities blocked foreign television transmissions into the country for days. They also barred reader access to popular news Web sites such as Ferghana.ru, Lenta.ru, and Gazeta.ru, effectively preventing the flow of nongovernment information into and out of the region. In the ensuing weeks, authorities maintained a virtual information blockade on the region, making reporting difficult and risky.
The government also moved aggressively to purge Andijan of independent journalists. From May 14 to May 16, police sealed the city and, citing safety concerns, ordered journalists to leave. Shamil Baygin of Reuters and Galima Bukharbaeva, then with the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), were detained by Andijan police late on May 13 and released the next day.
Bukharbaeva, one of a handful of journalists who reported from Bobur Square, was named a recipient of CPJ’s 2005 International Press Freedom Award. Bukharbaeva reported that government troops shot indiscriminately at protesting civilians, including women and children. The reporter barely escaped herself as a bullet tore through her backpack. Then director of the local IWPR office, Bukharbaeva went into exile in the United States as authorities threatened to prosecute her on charges of operating the news bureau without government accreditation.
Harassment of IWPR reporters continued. On June 4, police in the southern city of Karshi arrested correspondent Tulkin Karayev. Karayev said an unidentified woman attacked him on the street without provocation, IWPR reported, but authorities instead charged the journalist with “hooliganism,” tried him without legal counsel, and jailed him for 10 days. Just two days after his release, Karayev was detained briefly without charge or explanation and his passport was seized. He told CPJ that Uzbek security agents had also interrogated his family. State media maliciously accused Karayev and other journalists of cooperating with terrorists, carrying out antistate activities, and giving distorted news accounts. A May 25 article in the government newspaper Pravda Vostoka called IWPR correspondents “enemies of the state.” Karayev and several colleagues fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan in July, and IWPR closed its office in the capital, Tashkent, in the face of continuing persecution by the government.
The U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) documented more than 30 cases of government-sponsored attacks on its local correspondents after Andijan. In a detailed report published in September, RFE/RL recounted threats, detentions, searches, and physical assaults. Staffers were placed under surveillance and their families threatened and harassed, the news service reported. By year’s end, the Foreign Ministry had refused to renew accreditation for RFE/RL’s Tashkent bureau.
On August 4, a judge in Tashkent convicted two staffers of Internews Network, a U.S.-based media training and advocacy organization, of producing television programming without a license and publishing information illegally. The presiding judge said the organization had “started meddling in the politics of Uzbekistan,” Internews said. Internews disputed the charge, saying it had simply trained Uzbek stations to produce their own reports. The staffers avoided a prison term, but on September 9 a civil court ordered the closure of Internews Network based on the convictions. “The judge refused our request to call witnesses, denied all our petitions, and was blatantly biased,” Internews Network Director Catherine Eldridge said.
On August 11, Uzbek authorities at the Tashkent airport detained Igor Rotar, a Russian correspondent on assignment for the Norway-based human rights news Web site Forum18. He was deported the next day. Furkat Sidikov, a press officer at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., told CPJ that Rotar was stopped because he did not have the appropriate press accreditation from the Foreign Ministry.
Uzbekistan remained the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, with six behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. Two reporters—Sobirjon Yakubov of the weekly Hurriyat, and Nosir Zokirov, a Namagdan correspondent for RFE/RL—were imprisoned during the year in retaliation for critical reporting, according to CPJ research.
Yakubov was detained on April 11 and charged with “undermining the constitutional order,” which could bring up to 20 years in prison. The charge was based on allegations of religious extremism, which authorities did not detail. Colleagues said that the charges were politicized and that Yakubov was being punished for advocating democratic reforms in an article published in March.
Zokirov was charged with insulting a security officer after he called a National Security Service (SNB) office in Namagdan on August 6 to protest SNB pressure on an Uzbek poet who had criticized the violent crackdown in Andijan. He was detained, tried without a lawyer or witnesses, and sentenced to six months in prison, all on August 26, RFE/RL said.
Ongoing government harassment prompted the BBC to close its Tashkent bureau on October 26 and withdraw its staff. Seven BBC journalists had to leave Uzbekistan from June to October after enduring threats, intimidation, and a smear campaign in the state media, the BBC said.
Journalists also endured physical attacks. In the eastern city of Jizzakh, independent journalist Ulugbek Haydarov was hospitalized in April with a broken collarbone and multiple bruises after an assailant beat him and shouted, “I will teach you how to write,” according to local and international press reports. Haydarov had written articles saying that Jizzakh authorities had appropriated crops and deprived local farmers of the best land. Tensions between farmers and the Jizzakh administration resulted in antigovernment protests in the spring.
Aleksei Volosevich, correspondent for the independent Moscow-based Web site Ferghana.ru, was attacked and doused with paint near his apartment in Tashkent on November 9, the journalist told CPJ. Volosevich was one of the very few independent journalists who had witnessed the Andijan massacre and remained in Uzbekistan. Two weeks before the attack, Volosevich wrote a critical article on the trial of 15 civilians charged with terrorism in the Andijan unrest.
The Karimov government resisted calls for an independent investigation into Andijan that were made by the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United States. On August 23, the Uzbek prosecutor general’s office accused the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees of “protecting terrorists” by helping more than 400 Uzbek refugees resettle temporarily in Romania, according to press reports.
Faced with the government’s resistance, the EU acted on November 14 to bar 12 top Uzbek officials from visiting its member states and to block member states from selling arms to Uzbekistan, international press reports said. The same day, Karimov signed a mutual defense pact with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The pact pledged that Uzbekistan and Russia would work to “build and develop allied relations on a long-term basis” and that “an act of aggression on one side will be considered as aggression against both sides,” the news Web site Eurasianet said. The pact signaled Tashkent’s shift away from the strategic influence of the United States and toward that of Russia.