Attacks on the Press   |   Uzbekistan

Attacks on the Press 2006: Uzbekistan

UZBEKISTAN

President Islam Karimov continued his crackdown on the independent press, political opponents, and civil-society groups. As his foreign policy shifted away from the West, Karimov’s regime expelled dozens of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, including those supporting local media. The few remaining independent journalists were forced to choose whether to sever ties to foreign-funded media or face harassment, legal action, and imprisonment. A restrictive new law regulating the work of journalists for international media made it illegal for local reporters to contribute to foreign media outlets not accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Emboldened by the support of new regional allies Russia and Kazakhstan, Karimov turned aside international calls for an independent investigation into the May 2005 killing of hundreds of civilians by government troops in the eastern city of Andijan. He accused the West of waging an “information war” on Uzbekistan, and his government continued to use trumped-up charges of terrorism and extremism to jail media critics, political opponents, and human rights advocates.

Activist Saidjahon Zainabiddinov, head of the Andijan-based human rights group Appelyatsiya and a witness to the May 2005 killings, was sentenced in January to seven years in prison for talking to foreign reporters about the crackdown. Zainabiddinov was found guilty of spreading “false information” about Andijan, according to international press reports and human rights groups. He was tried in near secrecy; only the activist’s elderly mother was allowed to attend.

On January 13, the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Freedom House announced that a Tashkent civil court had suspended its operations for “allowing human-rights defenders free access to the Internet” and for noncompliance with an unspecified Uzbek cabinet decree. Freedom House had supported efforts to combat and document human rights abuses. Throughout the year, the government closed or expelled a number of international groups; these included the U.S.-based Eurasia Foundation, an NGO that promoted free media and democracy, on a charge of failing to properly register with the Ministry of Justice.

Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported Karimov’s response to Andijan. During his annual press conference on January 31, the Russian leader warned against the exportation of Western values. “We don’t need a second Afghanistan in Central Asia,” Putin told a U.S. reporter. “We know the situation there better than you know it.”

Bolstered by Putin’s support, Karimov reacted defiantly to the World Bank’s February decision to stop lending money to Uzbekistan. The president claimed the World Bank’s decision had been based on incorrect information, and he warned Western nations to stop interfering in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs, Interfax and The Associated Press reported. In March, Karimov hosted his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at a summit in Tashkent. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been traditional rivals in the region, but Karimov’s foreign policy shift toward Russia helped spawn a partnership with Nazarbayev in the areas of security, trade, and economic cooperation.

To solidify its grip on Uzbekistan’s battered independent media, the government tightened restrictions on local and international journalists working for foreign-funded media. The cabinet approved regulations in February that gave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wide discretion to issue formal warnings to foreign correspondents, revoke their accreditation and visas, and expel them. Under Article 21 of the regulations, foreign correspondents are “forbidden to call for the forceful change of the current constitutional order, violate the territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan, propagate war and violence, cruelty, [and] national, race, and religious hatred.” They are also barred from “interfering in the internal affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, harming the honor and dignity of citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan, interfering in their private lives, and committing other actions that provide for legal accountability.” The broad language does not define what constitutes interference in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs or in the private lives of citizens, nor does it specify “other actions” that are prohibited.

Putting the new regulations to immediate use, the ministry issued reprimands in March to three local correspondents for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the Central Asia news Web site Ferghana reported. Obid Shabanov, rebuked for filing “inaccurate” news reports, had reported on a January incident in which 30 people froze to death when their bus broke down in the desert. Yuri Chernogayev, charged with working with nonaccredited journalists, had confirmed the accuracy of that report to an allegedly nonaccredited Reuters correspondent. And Salikh Yakhyev had allegedly reported without accreditation.

In a rare positive development, CPJ welcomed the release from prison on April 3 of journalist Sobirdjon Yakubov. A reporter for the state-run weekly Hurriyat, Yakubov had spent a year in jail on vague subversion charges based on unspecified allegations of religious extremism. A Tashkent court released him for lack of evidence, Ferghana reported. Yakubov’s colleague, Gairat Mekhliboyev, remained in prison after being convicted of anticonstitutional activities in connection with a Hurriyat article that questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named Uzbekistan one of the 10 Most Censored Countries in the world. U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, called for the suspension of U.S. funding to Uzbekistan until the country showed progress on human rights and allowed an international investigation into the Andijan killings.

On May 13, the anniversary of the Andijan killings, the U.S. Department of State and the European Union issued statements condemning the crackdown and renewing calls for an independent probe. The state-controlled Uzbek press reacted by condemning the West’s “information aggression” toward Uzbekistan, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said.

In September, Dzhamshid Karimov, a former correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) who wrote critically about local and federal officials, was forced into psychiatric confinement in the central city of Samarkand. Karimov, the president’s nephew, had been under close government surveillance for months; in August, authorities cut his long-distance and international phone connections and seized his passport. Ulugbek Khaidarov, who had reported for IWPR and the U.S.-based Internews Network, was arrested in September on trumped-up charges of extortion and bribery after writing several articles critical of local authorities. An appellate judge threw out the case in November and ordered Khaidarov released.

No form of dissent was immune from official harassment. On September 8, a Tashkent court sentenced poet and singer Dadakhon Khasanov to a suspended three-year sentence after a closed-door trial in which the defendant had no lawyer. Khasanov was charged with undermining the constitutional order of Uzbekistan, endangering the president of Uzbekistan, and producing and distributing materials that threaten public safety, according to the Moscow-based human rights news agency Prima. The charges stemmed from a song Khasanov wrote and recorded in commemoration of Andijan. The AP reported that the lyrics read in part: “Don’t say you haven’t seen how Andijan was drowned in blood .... The victims fell like mulberries, the children’s bloodied bodies were like tulips.”

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