Anti-war Russian TV Riles Karimov

How long will pro-US Tashkent tolerate Russian broadcasts critical of American bid to topple Saddam?

Anti-war Russian TV Riles Karimov

How long will pro-US Tashkent tolerate Russian broadcasts critical of American bid to topple Saddam?

These are confusing times for Uzbeks. Their president, Islam Karimov, has taken a bullishly pro-US stance on the current war against Iraq. The only leader of a Central Asian republic to openly join the anti-Iraq coalition, he is highly critical of European countries' opposition to the war.

Yet many Uzbeks get their news from Russian television - which mirrors Moscow's criticism of the conflict - so every time they switch on, they hear views that are diametrically opposed to Karimov's.

Since September 11, Karimov has been unwavering in his support for George W Bush, a position which some commentators believe is dictated more by economic considerations than geopolitics. Uzbekistan received a total of 192 million US dollars in 2002, after making the Khanabad airbase available to coalition forces for the assault on the Taleban regime.

His rhetoric over Iraq has been equally uncompromising. "We should draw the right conclusions today, we should be clear about which side we should take," he said in a speech on March 21, marking Navruz, the Muslim New Year. In a radio interview on the same day, he criticised those who had opposed the war, "Several powerful European countries have interests in Iraq, such as oil. They never mention these, instead they adopt a pacifist position which is exploiting peoples' natural desire for peace and their horror of war."

Karimov's views differ significantly from those of President Vladimir Putin, who has branded the war a "political mistake" and called on the US to stop military operations immediately. While Karimov's position is reflected in the Uzbek media, a high proportion of people here watch Russian television, which parrots the Moscow leader's anti-war position.

Unofficial data suggests that the majority of Tashkent residents, a total of two million people, have satellite dishes or cable, which enables them to watch most Russian channels. The situation is the same in most major cities, only in rural areas where cable and satellite is less accessible does Uzbek TV dominate.

After years within the USSR, people here became accustomed to watching Russian language television. Moreover, many find Uzbek news programmes too "positive" on domestic issues and feel international news is always presented from a purely Uzbek perspective.

As a viewer of Russian television himself, Karimov is only too well aware of what his people are watching. "Russia's media is broadcasting material which spreads panic, such as declarations that the third world war has begun and that the world will never forgive America," he complained.

In the past, Karimov has taken steps to limit Russian broadcasts in Uzbekistan.

A report on TV 6 in autumn 2001, which claimed that a bomb from Afghanistan had destroyed an Uzbek house in the southern border city of Termez, led to an order banning all private cable stations from running the channel for almost a year.

When TVC broadcast a report in Autumn 2002 exposing child labour in the cotton fields of Samarkand, municipal leaders were castigated for allowing journalists into the area. Since then, interviews with foreign reporters have not been permitted and only the local STV is allowed to operate in the region.

Most recently, NTV was taken off air for two days after it reported - erroneously - on March 6 that Karimov had died.

In the past few weeks, the president appears to have taken advantage of his newly cozy relationship with the US to crack down on the local media. Amirkul Karimov, editor of the independent Khurriyat newspaper and director of the national press centre, has been unceremoniously removed from his position and two journalists covering a protest at the Chor-su market for Radio Liberty and Voice of America were beaten up by plain clothed policemen.

Whether his crackdown will extend to banning the hugely influential Russian television channels, which are contradicting him on a daily basis, remains to be seen.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan

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