Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lone Protester Chides Uzbek Press

A penniless Fergana resident cycles 300 km to the capital to take state-run newspapers to task for "ignoring" the problems facing ordinary people.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

It took Ismail Mallaboev, a 53-year-old unemployed man from Fergana, three days of picketing and the threat of a hunger strike to attract the Uzbek media's attention.

Mallaboev, a father of seven, decided to head for Tashkent when he failed to pressure his former bosses at a local oil refinery - where he'd worked for 25 years - to reconsider his dismissal last June. The sacking, which Mallaboev claims was unjustified, deprived his family of its only source of income.

With no money, Mallaboev completed the 300 km journey through the Kamscik mountain pass on an old bicycle, enduring heavy snowfalls and bitter cold during the two-day trip. He decided to go to Tashkent after numerous unsuccessful protests to the authorities, and around 200 letters to the state-run Uzbek press.

"I have long since lost faith in the local authorities, though I still believed in Uzbek journalists - now it seems that they are not interested in an ordinary person's problems," said Mallaboev.

Many Uzbeks, feeling desperate and powerless in the face of corrupt officials at every level, are increasingly critical of journalists for not publicising problems ordinary people face.

Mallaboev says he's fed up with the newspapers' attempts to paint a rosy picture of life in Uzbekistan. "I am protesting against media's indifference to ordinary people's problems. I call on the editors to tell me why they lie in their publications," he told a handful of correspondents - mostly employed at foreign news agencies - at his picket outside the main press building in Tashkent.

He was backed by human rights activist Mutabar Tajibaeva, who believes Mallaboev is justified in criticising the state-run media, which, she says, does not reflect everyday problems facing ordinary people.

"Today, when poverty and unemployment have become the norm, when women have come out on to the streets to look for work and the suicide rate among teenagers is increasing, journalists continue to write about how good everything is," Tajibaeva told the small crowd at the picket.

"The deceit has become intolerable. How much longer will you journalists continue to lie and fear the truth? Wake up!"

Mallaboev picketed the national newspaper offices for several days from February 18 onwards - at one point threatening to set himself on fire - demanding a meeting with senior editorial staff at the largest titles.

He was able to talk to the editor of Khalk Suzi (People's word), Abbaskhon Usmanov, and his deputy, Shukhrat Jabbarov, only after he declared hunger strike on the third day of his protest.

Having talked to Mallaboev, the journalists promised to send one of their correspondents to the Fergana region immediately.

While the media representatives were not in a hurry to meet Mallaboev, police and secret service people were quick to arrive.

Plain clothes officers stood quite openly next to foreign journalists and human rights activists and listened in on what they were talking about. And two police cameramen filmed the protest, trying to record everyone who was present at the picket.

In interviews with IWPR, the editors of Uzbek newspapers said they weren't happy with many of Tajibaeva and Mallaboev's criticisms.

Jabbarov, though earlier agreeing to investigate the latter's claims, felt the claim that newspapers were indifferent to people's suffering was unfair, "These charges are unfounded. The media plays an important role in society."

The editor of Uzbekistan Ovex (Voice of Uzbekistan), Safari Astonov insisted that while his newspaper had not received any letters of complaint from Mallaboev, his team of reporters was very attentive to readers' complaints - in principle.

"In my newspaper, we do not avoid critical material. If journalists do not write controversial articles, this is simply down to their low level of professionalism and not the result of editorial or government policy," he said.

Independent analysts, however, believe that the Uzbek media is completely dependent on the government and is reluctant to air criticism of its policies, instead putting an emphasis on positive news - portraying a wonderful republic where everything gets better every day.

Against a background of growing poverty - even the official statistics show that the average wage is only 50 US cents a day -many here says it is becoming unbearable to hear, read and watch "good news".

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's project director in Uzbekistan

More IWPR's Global Voices