New Law Could Muzzle Uzbek Media

Uzbekistan's new anti-terrorism law gives the government absolute control over conflict reporting

New Law Could Muzzle Uzbek Media

Uzbekistan's new anti-terrorism law gives the government absolute control over conflict reporting

Uzbek civil rights campaigners claim a new law aimed at fighting terrorism could have disastrous implications for press freedom in the former Soviet republic.


Media experts fear that the law, adopted by the Uzbek parliament in its last session of 2000, will provide the government with a mechanism for imposing a virtual media blackout during military operations.


And the new emergency powers will force journalists to rely almost entirely on information released by the authorities in Tashkent.


The anti-terrorism bill was prompted by August's violent clashes between Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan guerrillas and government troops in the Surkhandarya oblast.


Last month, Uzbek president Islam Karimov told deputies that "outbreaks of terrorism are gathering momentum". He explained that, at the present time, hired mercenaries bent on destabilising society from the inside posed the single greatest threat to national security.


"I am confident that we run no risk of invasion from the Taleban or any other army - the real danger comes from disparate groups [of terrorists]," said Karimov.


He concluded that the new bill would ensure the government was well prepared to thwart armed incursions and terrorist attacks in the future.


The law establishes new definitions for terrorist activity as well as a streamlined bureaucratic and legislative system to be enforced in the event of a national emergency.


Article 20 focuses on media coverage of any "anti-terrorist operation" conducted by the state security forces. The bulk of this section is devoted to the restrictions which will be imposed on journalists during the operation. It also defines what kind of material will be deemed "classified".


Classified information includes any details of operational procedures, army units or military tactics as well as anything which could jeopardise the operation or endanger the lives of military personnel.


Article 20 also bans the publication of any material which might purport to vindicate a terrorist act or serve the propaganda purposes of the enemy.


Many media experts believe the restrictions are so far-reaching that journalists will be obliged to rely entirely on the official version of events.


Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, said, "If you can't print any operational details or mention who took part [in the operation] then journalists will simply have nothing to write about."


Karim Bakhriev, an expert in journalists' rights, says the law will enable the authorities to control and censor all media coverage of military operations.


Any attempt to accurately report the sequence of events could be interpreted as a description of operational tactics, says Bakhriev, while the ban on so-called "propaganda" meant that journalists would be unable to present both sides of the story.


In effect, correspondents would be banned from reporting on the situation in the opposing camp or from publishing interviews with enemy leaders for fear of "vindicating terrorist acts".


Journalists who break the rules risk summary punishments. Aktam Tursunov, chairman of the parliamentary committee for defence and security, said that offenders would lose their accreditation and be excluded from the area where military operations were taking place.


The regulations, he added, applied to foreign correspondents as well as members of the Uzbek press corps.


Under the new law, accreditation is issued by the military headquarters in the immediate region or, in the event of a widespread operation, by the high command in Tashkent.


Mikhail Ardzinov said the new red tape would provide a further obstacle for journalists attempting to cover armed conflicts - "The journalist may well encounter delays in receiving accreditation due to the extra paperwork -- and may be refused accreditation altogether," he said.


The new law reinforces rigorous censorship enforced by the National Committee for Protecting State Secrets in the Print Media, known as Uzlit. Some committee members are so hardline that they have been known to veto publications approved by the president's own press service.


The erosion of press freedoms in Uzbekistan over the last decade followed a brief flowering of the Uzbek media in the late eighties.


Uzbekistan independence at the beginning of the nineties ironically led to the demise of the press.


The Tashkent authorities, which believed the Tajik media had played a part in provoking civil war in Tajikistan, introduced strict censorship for Uzbek journalists in an effort, they said, to avert a similar conflict here. As a consequence, the number of independent media began to shrink while the list of taboo subjects the press was barred from reporting began to grow.


As a journalist with the uzbek language newspaper Uzbekistan Adebieti Va Sanyati pointed out no one but official experts are allowed to publish analysis of the economic and political state of the country.


By tightening its grip on free information, the government will not necessarily increase security but will certainly hamper economic and political liberalization of the country, critics if the authorities say.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's project editor in Tashkent and Alfia Kharchenko is a journalist in Samarkand


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