A mosque is seen in Nukus, Uzbekistan, on September 24, 2018. Uzbek authorities recently fined staff members of two news outlets for allegedly publishing religious material without permission. (AFP/Sebastien Berger)

Uzbek news websites Kun.uz and Azon.uz fined for allegedly publishing ‘religious material’ without approval

Stockholm, June 24, 2021 – Uzbek authorities should drop the fines issued to staff members of the independent news websites Kun.uz and Azon.uz, and let all outlets report and comment freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 21, the Chilonzor District Court in Tashkent, the capital, fined several people affiliated with both websites for allegedly publishing religious material without first submitting it to the state Committee for Religious Affairs for approval, according to news reports, a statement by Kun.uz, and a member of the Kun.uz editorial staff, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of official retaliation.

The court issued 12.25 million som (US$1,158) fines to Kun.uz editorial director Mahsudjon Asqarov and Gayratkhoja Saidaliev, the director of Azon.uz’s parent company Azon New Media, according to those sources.

It also issued 4.9 million som (US$464) fines to Azon.uz editor Abdulaziz Raimov, founder Mubashshir Ahmad, and Farhod Tohirov, the head of its affiliated television station Azon TV, those sources said.

The court found the five staff members guilty under Article 184.2 of Uzbekistan’s administrative code (“Unlawful preparation, storage, importation or distribution of materials with religious content”), subject to a maximum fine of 24.5 million soms ($2,318), those reports said. A 2014 government decree requires materials containing religious subject matter to be approved prior to publication or broadcast.

Uzbekistan is scheduled to hold presidential elections on October 24, according to reports.

“As presidential elections draw closer, Uzbek authorities seem increasingly intent on demonstratively restricting the boundaries of acceptable speech,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should retract their fines against Kun.uz and Azon.uz and cease their tireless efforts to interfere in the work of the country’s independent press, including prior censorship.”

Azon.uz intends to appeal, according to those reports; the Kun.uz employee told CPJ that the outlet has no plans to do so.

Kun.uz is one of Uzbekistan’s most popular general news websites; Azon.uz is a religious affairs news website with affiliated TV and radio stations; its YouTube channel has about 400,000 subscribers.

Raimov told news website Gazeta.uz that Azon.uz published its material under an oral agreement with the Committee for Religious Affairs; the Kun.uz employee told CPJ that the outlet had not considered its articles – mostly interviews with religious officials on the subject of Ramadan – to necessitate the committee’s approval, and said that such instances were usually dealt with by a warning.

The charges against both outlets were initiated by the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Terrorism and Anti-Extremism Directorate, which identified at least seven articles on Kun.uz’s website and about 100 articles and broadcasts by Azon.uz and Azon TV which it deemed suspect, and passed them to the state Committee for Religious Affairs for analysis, according to those news reports and Mubashshir Ahmad, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

The committee ruled that the materials did not contain illegal content, but that one of Kun.uz’s articles – on the adoption by the New Zealand police force of uniforms incorporating the hijab – should be not have been published, and issued the same ruling on 12 of Azon.uz’s articles, including coverage of Russia-Turkey relations, according to those reports.

A repeat offense under Article 184.2 could be punishable by up to three years of correctional labor, according to the country’s criminal code.

Previously, in February, Raimov wrote on Facebook that he threatened to resign due to pressure from Dilshod Eshnaev, deputy head of the Committee for Religious Affairs, to remove material from the outlet’s website.

In April, Kun.uz published an article in which it claimed that it faced “almost weekly” demands from other state bodies to alter or remove material or to divulge its sources, and that its editorial staff received threats if they failed to comply.

Both Raimov and the Kun.uz editor said they believed the fines were an effort to exert pressure on the outlets, and may be retaliation for the outlets’ previous coverage of authorities’ attempts to interfere in their work.

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Uzbekistan and the Committee for Religious Affairs for comment, but did not receive any replies. The press service of the Uzbek Interior Ministry told Gazeta.uz that “all actions [by authorities] were performed within the framework of the law” and that the websites are free to appeal the decision in court.

On June 22, Azon.uz suspended publication of its website and Kun.uz suspended publication on its Uzbek-language page for the day in protest of the court’s decision, according to the same sources.