Spinning “Media Freedom” in Uzbekistan

Spinning “Media Freedom” in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan’s leadership is sending out positive messages about allowing greater freedom of the media. However, experts doubt the new line is anything more than PR, since rigid control of the media is central to the way the regime works. 

In a November 12 address to parliament, President Islam Karimov unveiled a strategy for “further deepening democratic reforms and establishing civil society”. This included plans for a series of laws on how the media are managed and guarantees of access to information.

"Ensuring citizens’ freedoms and rights with regard to information, including elements such as freedom and de facto rights to obtain and disseminate information and one’s own ideas, is a cornerstone for building democratic society in Uzbekistan," Karimov told parliament.

A week earlier, Uzbek state media reported that representatives from nine countries attending a forum on media and civil society in Tashkent agreed unanimously that the media were not only free but making rapid progress.

Local commentators say recent developments reflect efforts to create a more positive image of Uzbekistan’s media environment, even though it remains as closed-off and tightly controlled by government as ever.

On the surface, the media scene looks diverse, with more than 1,100 media outlets registered as of last year, and owned by government, political parties, business and non-government organisations. On paper, the laws governing the media, access to information, and journalists’ rights look adequate as well.

Yet the reality is that media output is uniform in contend and lacking any balance. No coverage is given to opposition parties or views. All output is subject to censorship and journalists who operate independently are persecuted and jailed.

"The laws don’t work,” media analyst Ronash Dustov said. “Many subjects are totally off-limits."

This spring, a newspaper editor commissioned an investigative piece to find out why century-old trees that once adorned Amir Timur Square in central Tashkent had been uprooted, and who ordered it. He was swiftly summoned to the presidential administration. After that, work on the article was scrapped..

Reporting from other countries is similarly constrained. Dustov recalled three recent themes of immediate concern to Uzbekistan which the media reported only after receiving explicit instruction from the authorities – the construction of the Roghun dam in Tajikistan, to which Tashkent objects on environmental grounds; the Tursunzoda aluminium plant, also in Tajikistan, which Uzbekistan says pollutes its territory; and the June violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, which pitted ethnic Kyrgyz against Uzbeks.

Despite the notional diversity of media outlets, in fact “there is no scope for exercising freedom of expression, pluralism of voices, or creative coverage", Dustov said. "All these media outlets are cut from the same cloth."

As for promises of access to information, local journalists say they face huge obstacles finding anything out from state institutions.

Officials often ignore a law stating that when they receive a request for information, they must respond as swiftly as possible and within 30 days.

Media expert Victor Krymzalov says levels of transparency vary from institution to institution.

"It’s sometimes possible to get information, but only from mid-level organisations," Krymzalov said. "It’s quite impossible to get it from the higher echelons of power."

Krymzalov says President Karimov’s proposal to reduce the time-span in which officials must reply makes perfect sense. He believes a seven-day limit would be logical for top officials, while lower-level functionaries should be required to speak to journalists, and press officers should have to give provide answers immediately.

Such rules would have to be made clear to officials, who would also have to follow them. That is not the situation now, according to Krymzalov, who said “They are under unspoken instructions to avoid any contact with journalists…. The president says one thing in public, while people from his office say something else entirely."

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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