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

Tashkent Alarmed by Media Invasion

Uzbekistan gets twitchy over the unprecedented output produced by foreign correspondents.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

The unaccustomed spectacle of foreign journalists swarming unchecked around Uzbekistan has deeply dismayed the Uzbek government and their supporters in the local media.


Ministers complain that international correspondents are delivering sensational, inaccurate stories about American forces using Uzbek territory to wage war in Afghanistan.


The government vents its displeasure through the more docile local media, which daily accuse international journalists of untruthful, distorted reports. The main target of criticism is the Russian press whose output is more readily understood by the country's large Russian-speaking population.


The government likes to play down Uzbekistan's role in the US campaign. Khanabad airport, some 150 kilometres from Afghanistan, is clearly a springboard for American raids against the Taleban. Yet the authorities insist it is only being used in search and rescue missions and to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghan people.


Ministers were far from pleased when reports leaked out from airport sources that about 1,500 American servicemen were stationed at Khanabad, including special forces who, on several occasions, have been seen boarding helicopters for night-time operations across the border.


Reports like this swung the international media spotlight on to Uzbekistan. Record numbers of foreign journalists have poured into the country and taken to cruising along the 192-kilometre Afghan-Uzbek border. It has been a new experience for the Uzbek government which, since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union 10 years ago, has kept its own media under tight control.


Government ministers started lashing the foreign press for what they said was dissemination of false information. Uzbek newspapers and broadcasting stations duly took their cue and launched their own tirade of criticism.


One local newspaper journalist told IWPR that Uzbek media had at first given thin coverage of events triggered by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Accordingly the people turned to the Russian media to find out what was going on. The authorities then complained that some of the Russian coverage was inaccurate and liable to stir up panic among the Uzbek population.


The journalist went on, "We were told: "Why do you keep silent? You should be ensuring that the population is informed and most importantly kept calm."


After that, Uzbek media turned their attention to the US anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Some of their news coverage was lifted from CNN. There were also plenty of stories about how the Uzbek people fully supported the government position on assisting the US operation. Newspapers and TV and radio reported rallies of support all over the country, particularly among students, academics, farmers and other groups.


But the media left plenty of space for attacks on foreign journalists. "Reports of certain foreign media resemble the truth found at the bottom of a liquor bottle," wrote Pulat Daniarov in the October 12 issue of the newspaper Narodnoye Slovo.


In the newspaper Pravda Vostoka, writer Aslam Akbarov angrily denied stories in the foreign media that the Taleban movement had threatened a jihad against Uzbekistan, and that 8,000-10,000 troops had been massed near the Uzbek border. These stories had particularly angered the government and roused fears that the population might be thrown into panic.


Many foreign agencies attributed the story to Taleban education minister Amir Khan Motaqqi who had been quoted to this effect in the AIP (Afghan Islamic Press). "If foreign media accept every word uttered by a crazy Taleban official then the quality of their journalism must have degenerated," Akbarov wrote.


In the same newspaper, Anna Ivanova wrote, "Information disseminated by international media is not always correct and objective. Being overblown by rumors, it can have a negative impact on the mood of the population, especially the youth."


History professor Faizulla Iskhakov blamed the government for refusing to talk to foreign media, which, he said, forced Western journalists to seek information from untrustworthy sources.


A majority of experts say events of the past month have shown that Uzbek officials just don't know how to deal with foreign journalists, many of whom were shocked by the blocks on official information.


"I knew that it was going to be hard, but I never thought it would be as difficult as this," commented one British journalist. "When I am given information I just can't cross-check it."


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR regional director in Uzbekistan