Uzbeks Denounce "Destructive" Web

Internet users in Uzbekistan fear their already limited web access will be cut further after regime figures suggested the country was under virtual attack. They point out that all websites containing anything remotely critical of the government are already blocked.

In a speech in June to mark “media workers’ day” in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov warned them of the presence of “destructive forces” on the internet.

Karimov did not specify who these forces were, but a senior parliamentarian did so after a meeting of the legislature’s lower house in July.

Abdurashid Jorabaev, chairman of the parliamentary committee for information and communication technologies, spoke of an "an active media war" against Uzbekistan.

"The internet is overflowing with provocative information directed against our state, our government and even the president," Jorabaev said. "These are destructive forces and provocateurs who cast aspersions on our achievements. We must wage a coordinated fight against them."

Commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia say the authorities are referring to opposition groups and human rights defenders who disseminate information on websites, by email and via social networking sites.

"The intelligence service is particularly concerned about Facebook and Twitter," Yusuf Rasulov, an Uzbek journalist based in Sweden, said. "It’s quite possible that these two web platforms will end up being defined as strategic challenges to the country."

The revolutions sweeping Arab states earlier this year, and the interest shown by Uzbek web users, clearly unsettled the government in Tashkent. It responded by arresting participants of in a debate on the popular Arbuz.com site, partially blocked Facebook, Twitter, and halted access to IWPR’s site – one of the only remaining external sources of news and analysis on Uzbekistan. (See Cyber-Censorship in Uzbekistan.)

By May, the authorities were even more worried because of reports that a new opposition force abroad was trying to coordinate acts of civil disobedience inside Uzbekistan. (See New Uzbek Opposition Force Formed.) This information spread swiftly across the country, with users resorting to anonymous proxy servers and other software designed to evade blocking. 

Vyacheslav Mamedov, chairman of the Netherlands-based Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan, draws direct parallels with the actions of Turkmen web users who reported on a major explosion in early July despite a highly restrictive web environment. (Web Users Evade Controls to Report Turkmen Blast.)

"The internet has effectively replaced the mechanisms for dialogue and influencing government in repressive states like Uzbekistan," Mamedov said, adding that the Turkmen case "inspires hope in what the internet community can achieve".

Only one in four of Uzbekistan’s 28 million people have access to the internet, and users are typically young.

The government has extended the censorship that applies to domestic broadcast and print media to the web. A government order dating from 1999 requires all web connections to go through the monopoly provider UzPAC, which is closely controlled by the security service.

"IP addresses are checked, email passwords are hacked, and providers provide confidential information to the intelligence agency," a Tashkent blogger said, adding that he feared things would now get even worse.

The dozens of websites banned in Uzbekistan include those of the BBC, RFE/RL, Voice of America, Eurasianet.org, Fergana.ru, Uznews, Memo.ru, Ng.ru, Deutsche Welle – in other words, all sources of information on Uzbekistan that do not follow the official line.

A media-watcher in Tashkent agreed with this view, saying the government would have little compunction about shutting off access to the web outside Uzbekistan.

"The security service can do it quite simply, by cutting through the cable during repair works. That’s standard practice for them,” he said. “Now it will just be done for a longer period."

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