The Sound of Silence

Uzbekistan has one of the strictest censorship regimes in the world, as the author learned when she launched her journalism career in Tashkent.

Tashkent–My career began with a failure. Just a few hours before my first documentary was due to air on state television, an Uzbek government censor was deconstructing my portrait of the national healthcare system.

The year was 1997, and our conversation was not going well. The bureaucrat was unhappy that I had pointed out flaws in the health system, but what really drove him mad was my attempt to tell Uzbek viewers how such problems were dealt with in the United States. “Why are you propagandizing America?” he screamed, spraying me with his spit. “Are the Americans behind this?”

Then he offered to cut me a deal. “We can compromise,” he said. “I understand that you are a young journalist and this is your first job. Your friends and family must be sitting in front of their television sets waiting for your debut. But there will be no debut. What a pity! So here is what we’ll do.”

“Why are you propagandizing America?” the censor screamed, spraying me with his spit. “Are the Americans behind this?”

He outlined his plan. I was to sit down and write a detailed explanatory note “naming all those who stood to benefit from the distribution of such films in Uzbekistan, and explaining why.” Meanwhile, he would cut out certain parts of the film, change others, and broadcast it in this new form.

“Well, let’s shake on it,” he concluded brightly. But we did not shake hands, because I refused to change my program. The state channel aired a cartoon in its place.

How it works

Uzbek censors often compare themselves to traffic lights. In this metaphor, journalists are drivers, and readers and viewers are pedestrians. The censors believe that their job is to prevent catastrophes between drivers and pedestrians.

Most Tashkent newspapers are published from the same high-rise building on Matbuotchilar Street. The third floor of this building houses the “traffic lights.”

Every newspaper must submit an advance proof of every edition to the censor, who reads each headline and article, including the obituaries and the weather forecast. The censor uses red ink to cross out photographs, phrases, and even whole articles that are not to his liking.

Editors are required to fill the white spaces left by the censor with empty phrases and worthless items, so that the outward appearance of the newspaper does not suffer and traces of censorship are not evident to the reader.

I know of only one case in the history of Uzbek journalism where an editorial staff refused to carry out this degrading procedure. On April 6, 2000, the newspaper Samarkand ran an attack on censorship that contained numerous blank spaces where the censor had removed undesirable words and phrases. The story was entitled “Who has Greater Love for His or Her Fatherland?” The author contrasted people hired to conceal society’s flaws (censors), with people driven by their professional honor to tell the truth (journalists). There was a lot of white space in that piece after the censor got through with it.

As a rule, the censor is authorized to make independent decisions. However, he will sometimes ask a higher authority to rule on a doubtful item. Only when the censor is satisfied with the contents of the newspaper does he sign the proof. The newspaper cannot be printed without his signature.

Not all censors are the same, of course. A censor’s severity will vary with his intellect, level of education, and degree of political conservatism, not to mention his mood, literary taste, and personal feelings about a particular writer or editor. The work is exhausting and poorly paid, so it’s not surprising that censors are rarely drawn from the best and brightest classes of society.

Letters of the law

During Soviet times, censorship was the responsibility of GLAVLIT, the Main Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press. GLAVLIT distributed lists of proscribed information to media in each Soviet republic, and meticulously reviewed all publications to ensure that its instructions were followed. After Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, the local branch of GLAVLIT was renamed the National Committee for Protection of State Secrets in the Press (UZLIT).

The same bureaucrats remained on staff, and UZLIT to this day is the main censor of print media in Uzbekistan, just as GLAVLIT was under the Soviet Union.

Despite this bureaucratic continuity, however, Uzbek law is conflicted on the issue of censorship. Chapter 15, Article 67 of the Constitution states that “censorship of mass media is not permitted” in the Republic of Uzbekistan, and that “nobody has the right to demand preliminary coordination of published reports or materials, as well as content changes or their full removal from print or broadcast.”

Yet according to Chapter 7, Article 29 of the same Constitution, expressions of opinion can be restricted to ensure the protection of state secrets or “other secrets.” The word “secret” is not defined, which in practice allows the censors to proscribe virtually anything in a newspaper (see sidebar).

Even in crossword puzzles, it is forbidden to mention Russian names and cultural traditions.

Censoring the past…

Ever since independence, our censors have been trying to erase the Soviet past from the consciousness of the Uzbek people. In order to wipe out the memory of Russian colonial domination, they comb through draft newspaper articles searching for references to the Soviet Union. The censors are allergic to words such as “Communist,” “revolution,” and “perestroika,” as well as the names of old Soviet leaders and pictures of people wearing Soviet regalia. Whenever they find such words and images, they cross them out.

Russian references are even forbidden in crossword puzzles. Recently, a Tashkent newspaper tried to run articles about the Russian actor Vladimir Vysotskiy and the poet Anna Akhmatova. The censor spiked both stories, saying it was “necessary to write more about Uzbek culture.”

…and the present

Censhorship is also an instrument of foreign policy. International news sections contain no information about Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, with which Uzbekistan has uneasy relations. Not even the names of these states can be printed. If an editor submits the phrase “as reported by the Russian [or Kazakh, or Turkmen] press,” the censor will always substitute “as reported by the foreign press.”

Despite their aversion to the Soviet Union, the censors have also worked to replace the geographical term “Central Asia” with the old Soviet term “Middle Asia” in Uzbek media usage. Why? Because “Middle Asia” excludes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s chief regional rival.

Closer to home, the censors do their best to root out even the most glancing reference to supposedly threatening ideologies. No information can be published about banned political parties and unregistered human rights groups. And because of Uzbek government concerns about the advent of political Islam in Central (sorry, Middle) Asia, censors routinely bar photographs of men with beards or “Middle Eastern” facial features. Beards are considered prima facie evidence of Islamic fundamentalist beliefs. A “Middle Eastern” appearance, meanwhile, reminds the censors of regimes that are eager, they fear, to export fundamentalism to Uzbekistan.

When a newspaper reported that the cold winter had made many children sick, the censor ruled that it was never cold in Uzbekistan and that all Uzbek children were healthy.

One happy family

At the same time, Uzbek censors wish to promote a positive image of Uzbekistan in the eyes of its own citizens, as well as the global community. To this end, Uzbek media manufacture myths of stability and prosperity, just as the Soviet press did in the past. For this reason, Uzbek journalists are not allowed to mention the existence of corruption, unemployment, poverty, prostitution, the black economy, or the exploitation of child labor by cotton farmers.

When a Tashkent newspaper wrote about a government campaign to help the elderly, the censorship crossed out negative adjectives such as “decrepit,” “sick,” and “feeble.” When the same newspaper ran an article noting an unusually large number of sick children due to the cold winter that year, the censor ruled that it was never cold in Uzbekistan and that all Uzbek children were healthy. Needless to say, the published version of this article bore little resemblance to the original draft.

Another newspaper submitted an investigative article about a murder connected to the illicit sale of human organs for use in transplants. The censor rejected the story on the grounds that “this newspaper is read by foreign diplomats, who might form the impression that such crimes are common in Uzbekistan. Then the state’s image will suffer.”

However, the editor of the newspaper insisted on running the story. After lengthy negotiations with his superiors, the censor allowed a significantly abridged version of the article to appear. In the published story, all details describing the nature of the crime were omitted, along with words such as “blood,” “dismembered body,” and “murder.” The censor’s final verdict was that “the public must not be traumatized!”

Go West

A journalist whose work is regularly abridged or rejected is forced to become careful about his choice of topics and the manner in which he treats them. According to a recent opinion poll, meanwhile, 54 percent of Uzbek journalists believe censorship is necessary to prevent the dissemination of state secrets, maintain public order, and promote an attractive image of the state.

Journalists who are not willing to sacrifice their professionalism leave state-owned media to work for foreign news agencies. However, this does not end their troubles. The state security services monitor whatever Uzbek journalists publish in the foreign press. The authorities have been known to harass Uzbek journalists whose international work was considered damaging to the state’s reputation.

A colleague of mine who works for the Uzbek Service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty network once aired a report about poverty and homelessness in Samarkand. She was promptly summoned to meet with municipal authorities, who told her that poor and homeless people existed in every country, not only in Uzbekistan, and insisted that she not call attention to this problem.

The government does not hesitate to blacklist journalists who break either written or unwritten rules. A colleague of mine once made the mistake of asking a difficult question at a cabinet minister’s press conference. The minister could not answer the question, but he could and did make life difficult for my colleague. Today, he is unable to find work at any Uzbek news organization.

My brave but unemployed colleague is an exception. Most Uzbek journalists are all too willing to censor themselves in order to keep their jobs. As a result, journalists here can hardly be described as the fourth estate of Uzbek society. Most of the time, it would be more accurate to describe them as the public relations arm of an authoritarian regime. By writing what the government wants them to write, they are helping to project the illusion of democratic reform in Uzbekistan.

In July 2000, the head of the state news service held a press conference for accredited foreign and domestic journalists. He announced that his goal was to promote “objectivity” in reporting on Uzbekistan. According to him, “objectivity” meant that journalists had a duty to publish positive news about the country.

One of our leading newspapers covered the press conference as follows: “It was noted that it would be convenient if journalists who work in the foreign-owned media would cooperate closely with the appropriate government departments when obtaining information, specifically with the press service of the President of Uzbekistan,” said Pravda Vostoka.

“Surely, the majority of journalists [who write about Uzbekistan in the foreign press] are citizens of Uzbekistan,” the paper said. “This, along with their journalistic duties, lays on them additional civic responsibilities.”

The writer was not very specific about these “additional civic responsibilities.” He didn’t need to be. In Uzbekistan, it is the censor’s job to make such things clear. •

Uzbek Censorship Laws

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The Uzbek censorship code contains literally hundreds of specific prohibitions. According to the official “List of Information Prohibited from Publication,” editors may not cover:

  • Border conditions and conflicts, unless the information has been released by an official source.
  • Military morale, the health of conscripts, and any other story that might “negatively characterize” the Uzbek armed forces.
  • Natural disasters involving human casualties.
  • Estimates of the number of Uzbek citizens suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
  • Issues relating to nuclear energy, including radioactive contamination of air, soil, water, and food.
  • Agricultural problems, including livestock illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease.
  • Outbreaks of plague, cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Journalists are also not allowed to report on the discovery of new diseases.
  • Criminal activity, the prison population, and the national prison system (in particular, the number of prisons and their location). It is also forbidden to publish information about closed court hearings and ongoing investigations.

Source: “List of Information Prohibited from Publication in District, City and
Large-Circulation Newspapers, as well as Radio and Television Programs”
(Internal Uzbek government document).

Adele Lotus
is the pseudonym of an Uzbek journalist. Translated from Russian by Olga Tarasov.