Despite dramatic gestures by President Islam Karimov to create the impression that Uzbekistan has improved its human rights record, the government has not relinquished its tight grip on information flow in this most populous of the newly independent Central Asian nations. In fact, an October issue of a major state newspaper in Tashkent published a government report that concludes, Given that the media is a powerful means of influencing the masses, it was deemed advisable to maintain state control over the work of the media in Uzbekistan.
Shortly before Karimov traveled to the United States in June in search of financial aid, he granted amnesty to 80 political prisoners, among them three activists from the banned opposition party Erk (Freedom). The three had been convicted of anti-government activities, including the distribution of the partys outlawed newspaper. But at years end, at least four other activists involved in newspaper distribution remained imprisoned.
Some observers praised unprecedented conferences on human rights and media freedom, held in Tashkent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe but attended primarily by government officials who did not address deep-rooted obstacles to press freedom. On Sept. 12, Abdumannob Polat, a prominent exile permitted to return to Uzbekistan, declared on state radio that there was no such thing as freedom of the press or speech in Uzbekistan.
Several Uzbek journalists reported beatings and intimidation by authorities, but declined to go on the record for fear of retaliation. The violent death of Sergei Grebenyuk, a reporter for the Russian news agency Interfax whose body was found near a canal in Tashkent on Feb. 8, remains under investigation by CPJ. And several Russian correspondents returned to Russia in 1996 because of inhospitable working conditions and intimidation in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek officials allowed the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) to begin medium-wave broadcasting, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty finally received permission to open a news bureau in Tashkent after a two-year delay in the implementation of an agreement with the government.
Thirty to forty small, nongovernmental Uzbek television and radio stations operated in Uzbekistan. But nationwide broadcasting by private Uzbek stations was forbidden. In May, Karimov exempted government-controlled Uzteleradio from paying taxes on advertising revenue until the year 2000. But to gain the same tax-free status, private companies will have to come back under the states wing.
Print media is heavily controlled by the state, with prior censorship and bans. By their own admission, journalists at government-backed publications do not challenge government leaders in print. Subscriptions to all Uzbek newspapers and magazines as of January had fallen by 94 percent since 1992. Even the official Uzbek Journalists Union attributed this drop to lack of variation in news reports, a sign of censorship.
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