Karimov chastises Uzbekistan’s ‘toothless’ reporters

Addressing the joint session of Uzbekistan’s parliament on Wednesday, President Islam Karimov urged his lawmakers to be more active in their work, saying that laws should address public needs, and blaming the local press corps for being “toothless” in its reporting, regional news Web site Ferghana reported.  

In his speech, available on the parliament’s Web site, Karimov, at left, said the legislative body should strengthen its control over the executive branch of the government, and added that the success of this process largely depends on “active participation of mass media.”

“Big and responsible tasks are yet to be undertaken by the party press, which we have to pitifully admit, continues to remain toothless,” Karimov said to the lawmakers.

According to Ferghana, the Uzbek leader also told legislators they should “create new conditions for more active reporting by Uzbek media of national and foreign policies implemented by the Uzbek government.” He also stressed that journalists should be awarded better compensation for their work, and said freedom and responsibility should be increased for news outlets.

Those not familiar with press freedom conditions in Uzbekistan might find nothing odd in these statements. In democratic countries it is normal for a leader to address newly elected lawmakers, call for their attention to the nation’s problems, and reprimand the press for not scrutinizing the government’s policies. But Uzbekistan is not a democracy, and its authoritarian president—in power for two decades—and his regime are the ones who pulled out all the teeth from the press.

There are absolutely no independent media outlets in Uzbekistan, according to CPJ research. In the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which government troops shot and killed hundreds of civilians in eastern Uzbekistan, Karimov’s regime repressed the independent media by driving journalists into exile, putting them in prison or psychiatric clinics, and harassing them in courts and prosecutors’ offices.

According to CPJ’s prison census, which is released annually on December 1, Karimov’s regime persistently jailed journalists in the recent decade. With at least seven journalists behind bars for their work in Uzbekistan as of last December, the Uzbek regime cemented its notorious position as a leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia for the second year in a row. All of the seven journalists once had “teeth” to criticize local and national authorities, but were subsequently jailed on politicized and fabricated charges. They reported on the Andijan crackdown, covered government corruption on local and regional levels, and wrote on environmental issues. They wrote articles for the regional news Web sites Ferghana and CentrAsia, worked for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and contributed reporting to the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and the Uzbek service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—all of which were forced to abandon their offices in Uzbekistan after the Andijan events, and have been blocked by local Internet providers since then.

Among the jailed journalists is the Uzbek president’s own nephew, Dzhamshid Karimov, who has been locked in psychiatric clinic without a court order or known medical diagnosis since 2006. We have repeatedly appealed to the Uzbek president urging him to release the journalists, but to no avail. Local sources told CPJ the journalist’s relationship to the authoritarian leader prevents local lawyers from taking the case to court.

Uzbek authorities are also infamous for harassing those few independent reporters and rights activists who have dared to stay in the country. Recently, CPJ covered the illegal interrogation and harassment of independent journalists by prosecutors in the capital, Tashkent. After their interrogations, journalists told CPJ that prosecutors showed them their personal files containing biographical information, articles, video reports, and data on their friends and relatives. The message was clear, they said: “Big Brother” has never ceased watching their every step.

Last month, we also reported on an absurd criminal libel case that Uzbek authorities filed against a prominent filmmaker and photographer, Umida Akhmedova, who allegedly slandered the nation and its traditions through her work.

Our research indicates that security agents pre-screen all newspaper articles before they reach the printer. The agents have to make sure nothing poses a threat to the regime of authoritarian leader, whose family and personality receive only praise from the loyal national press. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, colleagues of Alisher Saipov—a Kyrgyz journalist who covered human rights abuse in Karimov’s Uzbekistan and was murdered there in 2007—believe the Uzbek security service was involved in his slaying. Unsolved to this day, Saipov’s murder sent a chill throughout the region, reaching all of Karimov’s critics.

These are only a few examples of the egregious lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan, and the country’s leadership should be well aware of them. Of course there are many other journalists in the country, but those who have access to national press or state-owned broadcasters either don’t have critical and investigative reporting skills or, more likely, fear retaliation from state officials for even a minor uncensored article.

Karimov was right, the Uzbek press is “toothless” at large and needs reform, but as the sole driver of his regime, he should remove his government’s yoke from the necks of journalists. It will take years to undo the damage that has been inflicted on the independent press, but change is possible. As a first step, the Uzbek authorities should release the many journalists they are holding behind bars.