Throughout the year, President Islam Karimov’s administration sought to persuade the European Union and Western nations that it was on a path of reform. It urged the EU to lift sanctions imposed in 2005 after Uzbek troops killed hundreds of citizens during antigovernment protests in the eastern city of Andijan. Lobbying efforts notwithstanding, the government maintained a deplorable press freedom record. With six reporters in prison in late year, Uzbekistan was the region’s leading jailer of journalists. International broadcast media remained blocked, and government security agents enforced censorship rules on domestic news media.
In a gesture aimed at improving EU relations, Uzbek authorities issued a pardon in February to independent journalist Umida Niyazova, who was serving a suspended sentence on charges of smuggling subversive literature, distributing antistate material, and crossing a border illegally. Niyazova had filed reports for several news Web sites and human rights organizations. Authorities also released several human rights activists, including Mutabar Tadjibaeva, who had been jailed on charges that included slander, extortion, tax evasion, and membership in an illegal organization. CPJ research found that the charges in both cases were either fabricated or unsupported and that the prosecutions came in retaliation for the women’s work in monitoring the violent suppression of antigovernment protesters in Andijan.
In a letter marking the Andijan anniversary in May, CPJ urged Karimov to free imprisoned journalists, lift the country’s ban on international broadcasts, and abandon its censorship efforts at home. Among those detained in late year was the president’s nephew, Dzhamshid Karimov, an independent reporter who had been in forced psychiatric confinement since 2006. The news Web sites Ferghana, Uznews, Centrasia, Lenta, and that of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) were among those blocked within the country, while the BBC, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle were among the broadcasters that were inaccessible. All had been blocked since 2005, when Uzbek authorities moved aggressively to limit international scrutiny and punish outlets that tried to cover the Andijan killings. Sources in the region told CPJ that security service agents continued to visit domestic newsrooms to distribute lists of permissible topics for publication and broadcasting.
Uzbek representatives to the Council of the European Union insisted press and human rights conditions were better than portrayed in international news media, and they pressed to lift the Andijan sanctions. In April, the EU temporarily lifted a travel ban that applied to top Uzbek officials and set a series of benchmarks that, if met, could also lead to the removal of an arms embargo.
Tashkent flouted some benchmarks. The EU had urged Uzbekistan to convene a conference with international groups to discuss the state of human rights in the country. When the forum was held in June, though, Uzbek officials invited none of the independent human rights and press freedom groups that had been proposed by the Council of the European Union, RFE/RL and others reported. Facing widespread criticism for convening a sham conference, Tashkent scheduled another gathering in October that included independent rights groups. The air was hardly cleared. Uzbek authorities denied holding journalists in jail, asserted that the domestic press was free, and questioned the motives of the groups that attended.
“There was no hint of acknowledgment from the Uzbek side that the country’s media are neither free nor independent, that journalists and others are regularly imprisoned for expressing their opinions, that access to critical external Internet sites is blocked, and that foreign journalists are not allowed accreditation to cover the country from within,” Article 19, the Open Society Institute, Human Rights Watch, and other participants said in a statement.
Uzbek officials defied a second EU condition in July, when they denied work accreditation to Igor Vorontsov, Human Rights Watch country representative. According to the human rights group, Uzbek officials explained the decision by saying that Vorontsov was “not familiar with the mentality of the people of the region” and could not understand “the changes and reforms” the Uzbek government was implementing.
But the EU, with an eye on Uzbekistan’s natural gas supplies, appeared intent on pursuing a policy of engagement with Tashkent, according to international news reports. In a statement issued in October, the Council of the European Union said that the Uzbek government had made progress on benchmarks, most notably in releasing jailed human rights activists, holding the media conference, abolishing the death penalty, and granting the International Red Cross access to prisons.
In June, authorities in the western city of Nukus arrested independent journalist Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a contributor to Uznews, IWPR, and other independent news outlets, on marijuana and opium charges. Colleagues called the charges fabricated. He was charged with “drug possession intended for personal use” after traffic police stopped his car, opened the trunk, and claimed to find drugs, Uznews reported. Before the arrest, Abdurakhmanov had reported on corruption for Uznews.
Saying the drugs were planted to stop his reporting, Abdurakhmanov denied the charge and insisted on a blood test. In August, investigators acknowledged that the test found no trace of drugs–and then increased the charge to “drug possession with the intent to sell,” according to Uznews. An Uzbek court sentenced Abdurakhmanov to 10 years in prison on October 10.
In an apparent attempt to silence other independent voices, government-controlled television stations in the eastern cities of Ferghana and Namangan smeared RFE/RL contributors in prime-time programs aired in June. Local sources told CPJ that presenters accused RFE/RL contributors of carrying out antistate activities, inciting ethnic and religious hatred, attempting to trigger violence, and falsifying details in their reports. To emphasize the threatening nature of the message, the stations listed the reporters’ names, places of work and residence, and information on relatives, sources told CPJ.
Citing an unfavorable media climate, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation canceled plans to join with the EU in a 1 million euro (US$1.57 million) project to train independent Uzbek journalists, RFE/RL reported. “There was no possibility to achieve the results of the project,” foundation official Peter Kappinger told RFE/RL.
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