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

Uzbek Media More Open, But Limits Remain

State media in Uzbekistan are beginning to cover controversial issues such as corruption and organised crime, although many subject remain strictly off-limits. However, the new openness appears to being carefully managed by the country’s security service.

Over the last two months, the state TV and radio company has been broadcasting 30 to 45 minute investigative documentaries on such subjects as a recent trial of members of the Nurcu religious group, human trafficking, and the trade in fake gold.

What was surprising about these films was the range of people interviewed – from the individuals convicted in these cases to crime victims and representatives of non-government organisations who offered alternative viewpoints.

This is a significant change from past practice, when the Uzbek media made no pretence at editorial balance.

As one local media-watcher put it, “TV programmes generally used to be biased. For example, crime reports generally referred to the guilty parties, but now there’s a balance.”

This media expert said the quality of other programmes on Uzbek television had improved as well, with reporters now less prone to introduce their own opinion into factual material, and less keen on praising the authorities.

One local TV viewer said people used to watch the state channel only to catch popular Turkish and Korean soap operas, whereas now they have become interested in domestic items such as investigative documentaries.

“Every Monday at 21.30, we switch over to Channel One to watch an interesting crime show,” said Muhayo, a young woman of 19.

Newspapers as well as television have also begun reporting abuses and corruption on the part of senior officials, which never used to see the light.

TV news recently reported the cases of the former regional governor of Samarkand, given a 15-year jail sentence for extortion, blackmail and embezzlement; the former head of healthcare in Bukhara province, dismissed for abuse of office; and officials who mishandled the sale of subsidised flour and vegetable oil.

State television is also inviting members of the public to ring in on confidential hot-lines and report crimes and other news.

“This is a good sign,” said the media expert, who is now looking forward to a wider range of interesting and balanced programmes.

However, other commentators warn that this apparent liberalisation should not be taken at face value.

They point out that true freedom of expression remains a distant hope in a country where there are no independent media, where censorship is still in place, and where journalists continue to be arrested. The International Press Institute cites Uzbekistan as a state that continues to exert pressure on the media.

These commentators argue that a degree of criticism has been sanctioned by the Uzbek security service as a way of bolstering public confidence in the regime. They note that the chief editors state media outlets recently met a number of government officials. According to a March 18 report on the Uzmetronom news site, one of these meetings involved the deputy head of the National Security Committee, Muidjon Tahiri, who offered recommendations on how the media should overcome a perceived lack of public confidence.

An observer inside the country commented, “Local journalists are usually wary of carrying out journalistic investigations on their own. Now they seem to have got the endorsement of the security service to make more documentaries and programmes of this kind.”

Shuhrat Ghaniyev, a human rights activist from Bukhara in the west of Uzbekistan, draws an analogy with the Stalinist show trials of the Thirties in which the media were used to name and shame “enemies of the people”. Seen from that angle, the apparent improvement in media reporting may be illusory.

According to Ghaniyev, what we are seeing is a campaign “to reduce tension and to publicly identify ‘enemies of the people’.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)