French news site must prove Uzbekistan is a dictatorship

When Lola Karimova, the Uzbek president’s youngest daughter, decided to sue the French online newspaper Rue89 in August for libel, she wanted to restore the reputation of her country. Or did she? Her case against one of the most irreverent Paris media outlets is slowly turning into a public relations fiasco for her and the oil-producing Central Asian republic, Uzbekistan, where her father, Islam Karimov, has reigned supreme for more than two decades.

Indeed she could not have imagined that the trial would be scheduled on May 19, just a few days after the commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the Andijan massacre. Now due to Karimova’s own dogged pursuit, an increased number of French people will learn about or be reminded of what happened on this fateful day of May 13, 2005, when the Uzbek authorities decided to shoot into a crowd of protesters in the city of Andijan, killing hundreds of unarmed people.

Written by Augustin Scalbert and published on May 20, 2010, under the headline “AIDS: Uzbekistan represses at home but parades in Cannes,” the article described how Karimova, the “dictator’s daughter” and Uzbekistan’s ambassador to UNESCO, was “whitewashing the image of Uzbekistan” by inviting jet-set celebrities to her glitzy philanthropic events. The article also mentioned that she had paid actress Monica Bellucci 190,000 euros (US$270,000) to appear in one of her charity balls.

Since its launch in 2007 by Pierre Haski, the former foreign editor of the Paris daily Libération, Rue89 has been the target of a cascade of lawsuits. The 30,000 euros (US$43,000) demanded by Karimova comes on top of a string of other demands that have led the website to appeal to its readers and sell “virtual bricks” help the media to settle its judicial battles.

Tested in the ruthless world of French political journalism, Rue89 is not easily intimidated and is confident that the libel suit will go nowhere. “We will not have too much difficulty in proving that Uzbekistan is a dictatorship,” said Rue89‘s Editor-in-Chief Pierre Haski on his Facebook page.

Indeed, the online media does not intend to cave and has carefully prepared its defense against a judicial assault that most journalists in Paris consider a crude example of blackmail by a regime bent on exporting its censorship and silencing everyone that could dent its image abroad…and ruin the ambiance in the flashy Paris parties organized by the president’s younger daughter.

To make sure that the Uzbek capital, Taskhent, got the message, Rue89 joined the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights for a joint press conference in Paris. As Augustin Scalbert told CPJ, the meeting was used by Uzbek human rights defenders Mutabar Tadzhibayeva and Nadezhda Atayeva to expose the Uzbek regime’s continued human rights abuses. It also built the case of Rue89 a few days before the media will be summoned to a Paris court to prove its assertion “that Uzbekistan is a dictatorship.” Most observers expect a blowback for the Uzbek regime.

The trial will be followed with a lot of interest by Uzbek independent journalists and human rights defenders who have often regretted the underreporting of the dire Uzbek situation of press freedom in the French media. But it will also be closely monitored by French journalists who see with some concern how authoritarian regimes try to silence criticism not only at home but also outside of their own borders by bringing their raw censorship tactics into the heart of the Ville Lumière.