Interview

Uzbek Journalist Says "Incitement" Verdict Typifies Regime Approach

  • Yelena Bondar. (Photo courtesy of Ye. Bondar)

Freelance journalist Yelena Bondar says she will carry on reporting the truth despite a court ruling in Uzbekistan that resulted in a 3,700 US dollar fine.

In a trial at the main criminal court in the capital Taskent, Bondar was found guilty under a provision banning the possession and distribution of material “inciting national, racial, ethnic or religious animosity”. It is a serious charge often used against alleged Islamic extremists. Bondar’s “offence” was rather different. The prosecution built its case on the work she did last September to gather material for an article on the closure of the Tashkent affiliate of Russia’s Tyumen State University. The actual charge brought against her was “defamation of the Uzbek nation”. This unusual “collective libel” concept has been used before, for example against photographer Umida Ahmedova in 2010.

Bondar’s defence lawyer says no actual evidence was brought to demonstrate her guilt. Journalists and human rights defenders were not allowed to attend the hearing.

After the trial, News Briefing Central Asia asked Bondar about the apparent clampdown on the few remaining independent journalists in Uzbekistan.

NBCentralAsia: This isn’t the first case where lawyers and human rights defenders say charges have not been supported by evidence in court. In March, Viktor Krymzalov was fined for an article he never wrote (see Journalists Targeted to Deter Others in Uzbekistan), while last autumn, Leonid Kudryavtsev, the press officer at the British Embassy, was fined for conducting “illegal training" (Tashkent Sends Hostile Message on Human Rights).

Why is this happening now?

Yelena Bondar: In the cases you’ve cited, trials are not intended to provide fair hearings; they are a pretext for punishing journalists and those who support them. The guilty verdict and the charges are invented.

The authorities are using every means possible to maintain authoritarian rule, so they wage war on dissent and freedom of speech.

NBCentralAsia: What measures can journalist who are charged in Uzbekistan take to prove their innocence?

Bondar: At these trials, no one is interested in whether you are innocent. They are trying to use the judiciary, which they control, to punish you. They drag you through the system – police summons, lengthy questioning, statements – and issue a harsh sentence despite there being no proof.

NBCentralAsia: So what can local reporters do to fight such deliberately motivated charges?

Bondar: Publicity is the only way. These matters need to be reported in the foreign media, through interviews and the provision of details of the cases. There are no other mechanisms.

NBCentralAsia: In March, a number of journalists were deported and others were pressured. (See Journalists Targeted to Deter Others in Uzbekistan.) What was the reason behind that?

Bondar: The authorities have a blacklist of journalists who report objectively on Uzbekistan. Periodically, those journalists are “neutralised” by a variety of means. I think the March “campaign” was merely another purge of journalists.

NBCentralAsia: How do media organisations in Uzbekistan respond to court cases against journalists?

Bondar: Uzbekistan has no committees or associations to defend the rights of real journalists. The Agency for Communications and Information Support [which acts as censor] has its unions of writers and journalists, but of course their role is to support the regime.

Freelance reporters and human rights activists generally respond swiftly when journalists are persecuted, and when criminal and civil-law charges are brought against them. They make statements and help attract attention, and that’s of great help to us. It means we’re never left on our own.

NBCentralAsia: How do you plan to act after this? Will you become more careful?

Bondar: I have suffered from great stress, but this trial was a lesson for me. Unfortunately, you can never tell which of your sources the authorities will use against you. I have no idea of how I can insure myself against this kind of thing in Uzbekistan.

In my opinion, being cautious in our country means writing articles that don’t impinge on the interests either of the authorities or influential individuals backed by the regime. Being cautious means not writing about people’s anger, or about the injustices here.

In other words, in order to be cautious, you have to stop being a journalist. That isn’t me.

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.