In the most tightly controlled countries, the media is told what they are allowed to report on and what topics are taboo. Anything related to the leader's health or his family is generally in the latter category. The resulting information vacuum can lead to rumors and uncertainty.
Last summer, for example, Ethiopian citizens and international media were left wondering about the well-being of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who disappeared from the public eye for weeks. With a severely decimated independent press and the government's unwillingness to comment on the issue, the country and the Internet were filled with unsubstantiated reports that Zenawi was hospitalized or even dead. (After two months of secrecy, the government finally announced his death in August, but gave no detail about the nature of his illness).
A similar frenzy of speculation is now underway in Uzbekistan, where the 75-year-old authoritarian leader Islam Karimov has not been seen in public for a week.
According to news reports, an exiled opposition party, the People's Movement of Uzbekistan, said last week that the aging Karimov had suffered a heart attack and is immobilized. Citing their own sources in Tashkent, Russian and Kazakh media have reported that Karimov was hospitalized shortly after he attended the televised official celebration on March 19 of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The independent news website Respublika said the recent return to Uzbekistan of Karimov's youngest daughter, Lola Karimova, from her home in Switzerland brought further questions about his well-being.
As in Ethiopia, state-controlled media in Uzbekistan are keeping silent on the matter, and authorities will not officially deny or confirm the allegations, the exiled Uzbek news website Uznews reported. One semi-official denial came from a Twitter post by Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who dismissed the allegations and noted that her father was publicly seen dancing at the Nowruz ceremony. Karimova did not address, however, what has happened to him since.
Whether the reports are just rumors or reflect a precarious state of Karimov's health, the lack of clear-cut information exposes the dire state of press freedom in the country. Reporting on the confusion today, Reuters noted that "information from Uzbekistan is hard to come by as some news organizations, including Reuters, were barred from reporting inside the country after a bloody crackdown on protests in the eastern city of Andizhan in 2005."
Barring sudden, significant improvements in the deeply frozen media climate, both citizens and foreign diplomats will have to wait and wonder who, exactly, is running Uzbekistan.