Ask No Questions, Uzbek Media Told

Government officials are increasingly reluctant to open up to foreign media.

Ask No Questions, Uzbek Media Told

Government officials are increasingly reluctant to open up to foreign media.

Journalists working for foreign media in Uzbekistan are finding it more and more difficult to get access to President Islam Karimov. Government officials are increasingly shying away from hard questions or refusing outright to talk to the overseas press.

Correspondents from a number of foreign media outlets including AP, UPI, Agence France Press, Radio Liberty and the newspaper Liberation found themselves deliberately excluded from an interview with Karimov during the most recent session of the Uzbek parliament, held at the end of April.

By long-standing tradition Karimov meets all the journalists covering the session during the break, and they get a chance to ask him questions. His entourage have always sought to shield him from critical questions, but in the last few months their efforts have intensified.

The meeting at parliament is an ordeal for Karimov's press office, according to journalists who have attended. Officials watch the reporters like hawks, and signal to those behind Karimov's back in case anything is said to anger or discomfort the president.

When journalists do manage to slip in an unexpected question, they may be reproached afterwards by press secretary Rustam Jumaev. Mirasror Akhrorov, a correspondent with the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, recalled how Jumaev cornered and berated him after a failed attempt to silence him, saying, "You're not listening to me, you're just acting how you please."

Karimov himself may be unaware of the stage-management. When good questions are asked he picks up on them with interest, and sometimes admits his ignorance of an issue when it is raised. This tends to support suggestions made by some analysts that officials in his administration do not give him the full picture of what is happening in the country.

For instance, at the parliamentary session in August 2002, Karimov expressed surprise when told that police had dispersed peaceful protests and two human rights activists had been forcibly committed to a mental hospital, "This is the first I've heard of it. What did they want to do that for?"

This question may have prompted Karimov's press officers to tighten up. The next time parliament was due to meet, in December, they drew up - for the first time - a list of journalists who would be allowed in to the presidential interview.

The same was done at the April meeting. Press officer Sherzod Kudratkhojaev came up with a range of excuses, first telling AP, UPI and AFP staffers that they could not attend because "we only include representatives of international agencies". After a few minutes he said, "We don't have enough chairs for all the journalists, and we only have a small room at our disposal."

"We haven't been able to ask Karimov questions for over a year. The press service has created a real blockade for us at (parliamentary) sessions and press conferences," one correspondent told IWPR.

Another said that loyalty to the government and a reluctance to ask tough questions appeared to be the main conditions for joining the lucky few who get to see Karimov. Uzbek radio and television journalists are definitely on the list.

Sometimes the press office even feeds journalists a list of questions to ask Karimov. When foreign delegations turn up in Tashkent, the accompanying press corps will be invited since there is less likely to be anyone who knows enough to ask hard questions.

As a result, little of interest is reported. An official from an international organisation, who preferred not to be named, told IWPR, "I read the information from the last session and I noticed that not a single interesting question was asked, so there were no interesting answers."

Karim Bakhriev, a former journalist who now works as a lawyer for Internews Uzbekistan, thinks the new policy is counterproductive, "Important politicians should not be afraid of critical, unscheduled questions. They should be prepared for any question and find a way out of any situation without demeaning themselves. The current situation does not do credit to the president's press service."

The situation in the regions is similar. There, it is the heads of local administration who decide policy on what the foreign media should be allowed to cover.

Since a controversial interview on education was aired by Russian TV at the end of last year, staff at schools and institutes in Samarkand region have been forbidden to talk to any foreign media unless they have permission.

The case of Murod Madiev, a headmaster in Samarkand, serves as a warning of the harassment that can follow revelations about the behaviour of local government.

Interviewed by a journalist from the RenTV station in Russia, Madiev revealed that the authorities in Samarkand pressure school students to go out into the fields to gather cotton for two months every year, during term time. Pupils were forced to write statements saying it was their own idea to pick cotton, out of patriotism.

After the interview was broadcast, Madiev was summoned by the local government chief, Rakhima Khakimova, who questioned and intimidated him for over two hours. Then he was questioned by a police captain and told to write a letter explaining his actions. A week later, Khakimova interrogated Madiev again, this time for four hours, and accused him of setting up the TV report himself.

After these interrogations, Madiev had a heart attack and was taken to hospital. He recently wrote an open letter to the presidents of Uzbekistan, the US and Germany, in an attempt to protect himself from further harassment.

"Why are officials afraid of the truth and honest journalists? If people know a lot, they will demand their legal rights. But the main reason is that important officials are afraid to lose their positions after critical articles, and so they persecute freethinking people," said teacher and human rights activist Nazira Donieva.

Part of the explanation why officials are becoming more jumpy may be the changing nature of access to media in Uzbekistan. In recent years, the number of local journalists working for foreign media companies has increased. The authorities did not interfere with their activity, in part to avoid upsetting foreign news agencies and broadcasters. In any case, local people had only limited access to their reporting.

But with the arrival of the internet, information has become accessible to more people - certainly the elite - and officials are more likely to be forced to react to controversial reporting that digs up facts they would prefer to bury.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan, Artur Samari is an independent journalist in Samarkand

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