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

Uzbek Authorities Unnerved by Spiralling Web Use

By Farangiz Fayz

A massive increase in the number of young people accessing social networking sites in Uzbekistan has left the authorities alarmed and struggling to respond.

Figures cited by the CA News website in mid-August show the number of Facebook users in Uzbekistan had topped 82,000 – an increase of 33 per cent in just six months. This now gives Uzbekistan the second-highest rate of Facebook usage in Central Asia, after Kazakstan. Internet access is still low by world standards, in a country whose leaders strive to cut isolate the population from information coming in from outside.

IWPR sources in Uzbekistan confirm the sudden rise in interest in social networking sites and other resources like Facebook, Twitter, Skype and ICQ, as well as popular Russian-language sites such as odnoklassniki.ru and vkontakte.ru.

“Most of my friends started surfing the net this year, the main reason being social networking sites, which are becoming very popular in this country,” a university student in the capital Tashkent, who did not want to be named, said. “Almost all young people who have mobile phones are internet users here. It’s now normal for young people to have a Facebook profile, which they use to try to express themselves.”

As in other countries, the typical user is young. Some browse for news about Uzbekistan and the wider world which is unavailable in the heavily-censored media. However, the authorities have permanently disabled many foreign sites such the BBC and Deutsche Welle, blocked after the violence in Andijan in 2005. (See Cyber-Censorship in Uzbekistan.)

In a clear sign of nervousness about the power of the internet, the Uzbek government has imposed even tighter restrictions recently, adding The New York Times, the Financial Times and a range of Russian news sources to the unwritten list of blocked sites. Bizarrely, two pro-government sites, UzReport.com and UzDaily.uz, were blocked on August 9.

In early August, the government issued instructions for tighter monitoring of the media, including the internet. This grants a special commission powers to find ways of blocking access to information deemed to be contrary to the national interest or to conflict with Uzbekistan’s history and traditions – a fairly broad remit likely to include anything the authorities do not like.

Government curbs on the web have come in waves this year. The first, beginning in February, coincided with the outbreak of unrest across the Arab world. (See Tashkent Spooked by Web Interest in Arab Protests.) Social networking sites like Facebook were not blocked completely, but pages where Uzbek users were posting and commenting on news from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya became unavailable. Discussion of revolutionary movements rising up against despotic regimes was clearly too close to the bone.

The authorities became even more concerned from May, with reports that a new opposition force abroad was trying to coordinate acts of civil disobedience inside Uzbekistan. (See New Uzbek Opposition Force Formed.) 

In June, President Islam Karimov warned them of the presence of “destructive forces” on the internet, but Abdurashid Jorabaev, who chairs the parliamentary committee for information and communication technologies, elaborated in July on what he called the "an active media war" being waged against Uzbekistan.

"The internet is overflowing with provocative information directed against our state, our government and even the president," Jorabaev said. "These are destructive forces and provocateurs who cast aspersions on our achievements. We must wage a coordinated fight against them." (For more on this, see Uzbeks Denounce "Destructive" Web.)

In May, the authorities tried to limit young people’s access to the web by banning schoolchildren from entering internet cafes in Tashkent between 0830 and seven in the evening. The official reason given was that online games were damaging to children’s academic prospects.

However, such measures may not be enough to thwart those who are keen to remain in contact with the outside world. Many users are proficient in accessing anonymous proxy servers and other software designed to evade blocking.

Some government officials may have a dawning realisation that the internet just cannot be contained.

“It’s making them uneasy and nervous,” one of the few remaining independent journalists in Tashkent said. “This nervousness is leading to the sporadic blocking of websites, and 'online wars against our enemies'. But none of these attempts appears to be working.

“Banning access to the internet, especially the mobile internet, effectively means you are waging war on your own younger generation. Many internet users are intelligent, so that the government’s plans may backfire. And some officials believe that they can't risk losing the support of the younger generation at this time.”

Farangiz Fayz has completed an editorial internship with IWPR in London

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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