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Uzbek Journalists Trained for Silence

Despite years of censorship and total state control, the authorities still feel the need to warn reporters not to stray into sensitive areas.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Newspaper kiosk in Uzbekistan. (Photo: IWPR)
    Newspaper kiosk in Uzbekistan. (Photo: IWPR)

Media outlets in Uzbekistan have always been subject to strict censorship, but the level of editorial scrutiny has tightened in recent month, as the authorities seek to prevent discussion of economic troubles and political feuding.

One taboo subject is the wintertime interruption in natural gas supplies, particularly in areas outside the capital Tashkent. This in turn has triggered power shortages as electricity consumption surges. The local authorities have attempted to solve the problem by limiting the power supply to several hours a day.

A journalist based in the eastern city of Namangan told IWPR how his editor turned down his plan for an article about the situation there. He was clear that neither he nor his colleagues would dare criticise the authorities, but he just wanted to write about the schedule for power cuts so that readers would be able to plan their daily lives around them.

He admitted that he had little hope his article would be printed, given that it would need to be approved first by his editor and then by a municipal official.

Unsurprisingly, he was told, “Don’t touch that subject, We’ve got editorial censorship, we’ve got self-censorship, and we’ve got censorship by the city government. There will be trouble.”

In its 2013 report on media freedom, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Uzbekistan 164th out of the 180 countries surveyed.

Cases highlighted by RSF included Muhammad Bekjon, a former editor of the Erk newspaper who has been imprisoned for nearly 15 years, and freelance journalist Solijon Abdurahmonov, held since 2008 for covering environmental issues around the Aral Sea.

The state-funded press, a legacy of the Soviet Union, consists of the government’s Pravda Vostoka and Narodnoye Slovo newspapers, as well as publications financed by regional and district administrations.

Public sector workers are often forced to subscribe to these titles to keep circulation figures as there is little public interest in reading them.

A participant in a training course for the editors of state-run media, held in Tashkent in December, recounted how specific instructions were issued about what issues to cover, how to report on them and what to avoid.

Editors from all over the country were invited to the two-day workshop, funded by the OSCE and organised by the Tashkent-based International Centre for Journalism Training and the Public Foundation in Support of Independent Uzbek Mass Media.

The first day’s sessions were conducted by foreign media trainers, but on the following day, local instructors took over, and urged participants to exercise “even greater vigilance and caution given the challenges of the modern world”.

“We understood all about what [areas] we had to strengthen and how to do so,” the editor said.

One of the sensitive issues which participants were warned not to cover was the feud wracking the family of 76-year-old President Islam Karimov.

Over recent months, the president’s daughter Gulnara Karimova has fallen out of favour. Her extensive business, media and NGO holdings have been seized and staff who worked there have been arrested. She has defended her position on Twitter, in particular, where she has accused the powerful head of the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, of plotting to undermine her. (See Uzbekistan's Feuding Family Elite.)

The conflict has lifted the lid on behind-the-scenes power struggles ahead of 2015 year’s presidential election. A parliamentary ballot scheduled this year would otherwise be an uncontroversial affair, but could gain importance as a pointer for which way a possible succession process might go.

“They told us we needed to be more careful and show sensitivity in our coverage, to avoid evoking public resentment of the authorities, and to be able to exercise self-censorship when needed,” the editor said, adding that he and his colleagues were told to avoid any mention of elections.

They were advised to base reporting on press releases from the state news agency

As the editor pointed out, years of repression meant that journalists already knew better than to disobey the regime.

“No one wants to end up in jail and staff at all newspapers and TV stations therefore follow the rules. As for taboo topics we know exactly what to do – if things are getting worse somewhere, we keep our mouths shut,” he said.

A media expert with one of the NGOs behind the December training told IWPR that he was aware of the contradiction of having one part of a training course teaching international journalism standards, and the other consisting of orders on how to comply with government rules.

All the same, he still felt it was beneficial for Uzbek journalists to have contact with foreign counterparts after a prolonged period of isolation. Many international media development and civil society organisations were forced to leave Uzbekistan following the international community’s condemnation of the 2005 violence in Andijan, when government forces killed hundreds of demonstrators.

According to the media expert, workshops in partnership with foreign organisations only resumed in 2012, thanks to some officials adopting a more pragmatic approach.

Although he conceded that it was difficult to quantify how far editors would be able to apply international standards in their day-to-day work, he argued that anything that reduced Uzbekistan’s isolation had to be beneficial.

The level of censorship applied in the media made editors incredibly cautious, he continued, citing the example of how one editor refused to pay a reporter for an article on tuberculosis because he felt the need to discourage reporting on anything that might endanger the newspaper.

“The heads of media outlets try to safeguard themselves from any problems, so they seek to anticipate domestic and foreign policy issues could land them in trouble,” the media expert said. Uzbekistan’s delicate relationships with Russia and the United States were another off-limits subject, he added.

With journalists reduced to acting as mouthpieces for the government, public trust in the media is limited.

Leading journalist and editor Sergei Yezhkov says he has seen a steep decline in the already very limited space for press freedom over the last decade.

Yezhkov, who used to work for Pravda Vostoka, set up the online news agency Uzmetronom eight years ago and now serves as its editor-in chief.

He describes journalism these days as a “completely degraded trade”, and those who practice it as “people who carry out the government’s instructions”.

“They write about the tax committee by using information provided by the committee itself. It then checks over the report and gives it its seal of approval, and only then will Pravda Vostoka or Narodnoye Slovo publish it,” Yezhkov said, adding that this could hardly be described as professional reporting.

He noted that the authorities had stopped holding press conferences so as to prevent local journalists meeting visiting foreign envoys. Instead, they were restricted to reporting on official press releases.

Recalling his time at Pravda Vostoka, Yezhkov said he had been able to publish reports criticising the work of the police, the security forces and the prosecution service.

“There were some who were able to do even more than I did,” he added.

As a result, the media no longer delivered information of any public interest. Yezhkov added, “In the past, people respected someone who was a journalist.”