• State deploys analysts to build sweeping criminal defamation cases.
• Numerous regional and international news websites are blocked.
6: Journalists in prison on December 1, the highest figure in the region.
Even as President Islam Karimov was calling for more “active” news reporting, his government was rolling out a new tactic designed to quash critical journalism. Using an obscure state agency to formulate the charges, Uzbek prosecutors arrested at least three journalists on vague allegations of defamation. In one of the cases, a photographer was convicted of insulting the whole of Uzbek citizenry with her images of life in rural Uzbekistan.
THE PRESS: 2010
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The new practice supplemented the government’s long-standing tactics of repression. Security services continued to harass independent reporters, state agencies still blocked critical websites and enforced censorship in local media, and the government retained the dishonor of being the region’s worst jailer of journalists. At least six reporters, including the president’s own nephew, Dzhamshid Karimov, were confined in retaliation for their work when CPJ conducted its worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.
No wonder then that domestic news media might be “toothless,” as President Karimov called them in a February address to parliament. In his speech, he urged lawmakers to “create new conditions for more active reporting by Uzbek media” on government policies, the Moscow-based news website Ferghana reported. The administration could start the reform process by halting its recent use of “experts” in the state Agency for Press and Information to build criminal defamation cases against independent reporters. These agency analysts have formulated defamation cases based on the notion that critical journalists could insult the entire Uzbek population and its traditions. No such broad standard of defamation appears to exist in the Uzbek Criminal Code.
The practice gained international attention in January, when Tashkent police charged the prominent photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Umida Akhmedova with defaming and insulting the Uzbek nation. Analysts with the state Agency for Press and Information contended that the journalist’s portfolio, which depicted life in rural Uzbekistan, along with a documentary on the traditional ban against premarital sex, had insulted the country. “Looking at the pictures, a foreigner who had not seen Uzbekistan comes to the conclusion that this is a country where people live in the Middle Ages. The author intentionally focuses on life’s hardships,” the agency said in an analysis submitted to the court, Ferghana reported. No individual complainant was presented by the prosecution.
Akhmedova was convicted but amnestied the same day as local and international media advocates, including CPJ, decried the prosecution. Her criminal record, however, remained intact and her appeals were denied. The photojournalist was also barred from traveling outside the country, smeared in state-controlled media, and followed in the streets by security agents. The Akhmedova prosecution had a precedent. In 2009, a Tashkent court sentenced Maksim Popov, an HIV/AIDS activist, to seven years in jail on charges that included corruption of minors through distribution of brochures on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. According to the written verdict, obtained by CPJ, the prosecution was based solely on government analysts’ conclusion that a publication on HIV/AIDS prevention violated Uzbek traditions and values. The court ordered all copies of the publication to be burned.
Two other journalists, Abdumalik Boboyev, Tashkent correspondent for the U.S. government-funded Voice of America (VOA), and Vladimir Berezovsky, editor of the pro-government news website Vesti, were similarly prosecuted on defamation charges based on the findings of state publication analysts. Courts in Tashkent convicted both journalists in October, generating renewed outcry from domestic and international organizations, including CPJ. As they did in the Akhmedova case, authorities amnestied Berezovsky immediately after his conviction. Boboyev was ordered to pay a heavy fine of 18 million som (about US$11,000), Ferghana reported.
Boboyev was also among at least six independent journalists summoned by Tashkent prosecutors for interrogations in January, according to Ferghana and CPJ interviews. In these sessions, authorities made clear that they had been watching the reporters’ movements very closely. One of those interrogated told CPJ that prosecutors wielded a detailed, government-compiled dossier that contained not only articles and biographical information, but copies of personal financial transactions and accounts of the reporters’ daily activities. No legal counsel was present for the interrogations, during which the journalists were forced to give written responses to prosecutors’ questions. Among other things, prosecutors demanded that journalists name the outlets to which they have contributed, reveal any pennames they have used, and explain financial transactions, Ferghana reported.
Government data reflected a sizable number of news media: about 950 publications, 97 broadcasters (62 private), four news agencies, and 124 news websites. But CPJ research showed that authorities heavily influenced overall editorial policies, suppressing critical coverage of government actions and sanitizing coverage of international events.
In a rare development, two news anchors for state-controlled Yoshlar TV publicly described censorship practices at work. At an August press conference held at the Tashkent-based human rights group Ezgulik, an-chors Saodat Omonova and Malokhat Eshonkulova said that government officials pre-screened their programs, censored reports they found critical of the state, and instructed the journalists to present information from the government-owned news agency. “State officials of any level–from the presidential administration and security council to bank clerks, tax police agents, and customs officers–can interfere in our work,” the anchors said. Approached for comment by the BBC, Yoshlar TV representative Sokhibdjon Alidjonov denied government interference, Ferghana reported.
Authorities continued to block domestic access to critical international websites, CPJ research showed. CPJ sources said the list of officially blocked media has changed little since the government’s violent suppression of civil protests in Andijan in 2005 sparked widespread censorship. That list continued to include the regional news websites Ferghana, CentrAsia, Uznews, EurasiaNet, Voice of Freedom, Lenta, and those associated with the BBC Uzbek Service, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/FL), and the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Authorities continued to jam broadcasts from VOA, RFE/RL, and the BBC as well, sources told CPJ. When clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents took place in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbek security agents stepped up their monitoring of Internet cafés, Voice of Freedom reported.
Uzbek media were generally passive in covering political turmoil and ethnic unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, according to analyses in Ferghana and Uznews. No Uzbek broadcasters, and few other outlets, reported on protests in Bishkek that led to the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, Ferghana reported. And when a bloody ethnic conflict engulfed the predominantly Uzbek southern Kyrgyzstan in early June, Uzbek media were relatively silent until the end of the violence, producing generic and government-sanctioned reports, Uznews said.