Central Asia: Sep ‘08

IWPR joins forces with other NGOs to raise concerns over media censorship in Uzbekistan – prompting a hostile response from the authorities.

Central Asia: Sep ‘08

IWPR joins forces with other NGOs to raise concerns over media censorship in Uzbekistan – prompting a hostile response from the authorities.

Monday, 27 October, 2008
IWPR was one of a group of international media development and human rights organisations that attended a controversial seminar on the media in Uzbekistan in October.

The event, bearing the lengthy title “Liberalisation of Mass Media – an Important Condition for the Democratisation of Society”, took place in Tashkent on October 2-3 as a joint exercise between the European Commission and the Uzbek authorities.

It forms part of an emerging dialogue between Europe and Uzbekistan, and came shortly before the EU was due to review the sanctions it imposed on the country in the wake of the May 2005 massacre of civilians in Andijan.

Each side selected its own delegates to the conference, and the EU invited representatives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Article 19, the International Crisis Group, Deutsche Welle Academy as well as John MacLeod of IWPR.

Because of the kind of organisations that were invited, the discussion at the seminar was much franker than is usual at such events, where the Uzbek authorities try to set the agenda and curb open debate.

Speakers raised concerns about state ownership and censorship of all media outlets in Uzbekistan, including those that claim to be independent of government but rigorously toe the line. They also spoke about the way the Uzbek media ignore human rights concerns and never question the official line on, for example, the Andijan massacre, and the murder of ethnic Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov in Kyrgyzstan in October 2007.

The response from the Uzbek delegates was hostile – they had never heard of Solijon Abdurahmonov, a journalist who was then on trial for alleged drug offences; and the Andijan violence was the work of foreign subversives including the correspondents for the BBC, Reuters and other news outlets. Images of these correspondents were presented as part of a slide-show.

Such statements only served to underline the reason why the media are decidedly un-free in Uzbekistan – they are unable to distinguish their role as purveyors of information from that of servants of an all-powerful state.

In the state media, the media seminar was hailed as an affirmation of Uzbekistan’s achievements in becoming a more democratic and liberal place.

For their part, the international NGOs that attended released a statement insisting that the event should not be seen as a sign of improvement in Uzbekistan’s respect for freedom of expression.

“The Uzbek government's past record of engagement with the EU and other international institutions clearly demonstrates that discussions of possible reforms have consistently been used as a substitute for real and measurable progress,” said the statement. “They may be no more than a decoy designed to extract concessions at no cost to the Uzbek authorities.”

When the EU’s General Affairs and External Relations Council reviewed the sanctions on October 13, it lifted one element altogether – a visa ban on officials held to be responsible for the Andijan violence – while prolonging an embargo on arms sales to the country. The statement cited the Tashkent media event as proof of progress.

The timing of the decision was unfortunate – three days earlier, Solijon Abdurahmonov received a ten-year prison sentence for drugs charges.

During the seminar, an Uzbek official stated that journalists were never charged with political offences. That is in fact generally true – human rights groups have documented numerous cases where criminal charges have been used to discredit and convict critics of the government. Abdurahmonov denied the charges, and said the drugs were planted.

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