'Good News' from Uzbekistan

Uzbeks have little idea of what's happening in their own country let alone abroad

'Good News' from Uzbekistan

Uzbeks have little idea of what's happening in their own country let alone abroad

If you want to get an idea of what's really going on in Uzbekistan, don't bother reading the local press.

Uzbek papers reek of the Soviet past, with column inches devoted to 'good news' - blissful bragging about Uzbek achievements, eulogies to international friendship, heroic stories about common labourers, and so on.

A glance at a March issue of Birlik (Unity) devoted to the Navruz, the Uzbek spring holiday, should illustrate the point.

"The wise and consistent policy of our government and the unity of our citizens are the key to our wonderful future, " Birlik enthuses.

"Today, our independent nation is unthinkable without the joyful, happy smiles of its citizens during these days of nature's rejuvenation."

In fact, Uzbekistan's print media today does differ substantially from its Soviet counterparts - as the latter used to publish the odd critical article. Uzbekistan's press lacks any criticism at all. Censorship and self-censorship are more ruthless and thorough today than ever before.

For all we know, Uzbek readers are completely unaware of this. "The Uzbeks have no basis for comparison," remarked one Kyrgyz journalist, "they have never lived a life of freedom. They've just gone from one totalitarian society to another."

Information about what is actually going on is available from online newspapers, but this type of electronic media is still in its infancy in Uzbekistan. Most readers have no access to the Internet - and the cost of surfing the net is prohibitive. The average wage is $20 per month, an hour online costs $2.

Ordinary people have to turn to Russian newspapers, which one can still find at Tashkent kiosks, for real news on Uzbekistan, but they're not always able to get hold of them.

Titles such asArgumenty i Fakty, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kommersant, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, find their way into the country semi-legally. As a result, newspaper sellers can only import small quantities, so only a limited number of people get to read them.

Journalists attending a recent Tashkent conference on inter-ethnic relations and media coverage found ample proof that reliable information is hard to come by here.

The conference, as well as the subsequent training workshop in Samarkand, were hosted by the International Retraining Centre for Uzbek Journalists in collaboration with the Swiss organisation, Civil Development Media Support, Research and Analysis, CIMERA, as part of a project to assist mass media in Central Asia.

Journalists from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Germany joined their Uzbek counterparts at the conference.

Alo Khodjaev, editor-in-chief of the Uzbek press' flagship paper Tashkentskaya Pravda, revealed that many of the old Soviet censors are still in place, more eager and meticulous than ever. Anything they perceive as harmful to the image of Uzbekistan as an independent nation is expunged.

Khodjayev gave some examples. Censors attempted to have an article on the great Russian poet Anna Akhamtova removed, complaining priority should be given to Uzbek writers. Authorities higher than the censors can intervene too.

An article about the famous Russian actor, singer/songwriter and poet, Vladimir Vyssotsky had to be binned after "someone on top" phoned in to pointed out that Vyssotsky had allegedly used a "bad word" about Uzbeks in one of his songs.

There is no dearth of information on the anniversaries of local writers, poets, cultural figures, and other dignitaries, both famous and obscure, in the local press.

Uzbek journalists tend to focus on the nation's past, its history; they are less concerned about the present, and shy away from any reflections on the future.

It seems the man in the street is reluctant to talk about the present state of affairs too. Journalists at the Tashkent conference and workshops in Samarkand ventured out to interview locals as research for their articles.

They found people were quite ignorant of what was going on in their country - and those who did know a thing or two were only prepared to speak on condition of anonymity.

Uzbek journalists at the conference insisted on the same. "Otherwise I'll lose my job and never find another," said one. "Don't even mention my given name: they'll track me down."

Alla Pyatibratova is an IWPR contributor

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