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Uzbek President's TV Shame

Veteran political editor dismissed following live broadcast that cast Karimov in an unfavourable light.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbek state television has fired its chief political editor after he broadcast live footage of people sleeping through a speech by President Islam Karimov.


Ahmadjon Ibrahimov’s coverage of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, meeting on May 4 was also criticised for showing a depressed-looking president with his head in his hands after coming under fire from its chairman, British MP Clare Short.


The incident sent shockwaves across the country, as direct criticism of the president is unheard of in the state-controlled media. Millions of television viewers watched Short tell Karimov, “There are particular concerns in Uzbekistan about lack of respect for freedom of religion, the prevalence of torture and the failure of the judicial system to protect the rights of citizens.”


Ibrahimov, who had worked for the state broadcaster for 37 years, admitted that he was responsible for the damaging images, saying, “It was very noisy and I didn’t notice that the camera was directed at sleeping people during President Karimov’s speech.”


The Uzbek leader’s reaction to criticism of the former Soviet republic’s human rights record and poor economic progress, from EBRD president Jean Lemierre and chairman Short, was also broadcast live to the entire country. “The fact that I showed Karimov in such a state wasn’t welcomed either,” Ibragimov told IWPR.


The EBRD, which was set up to offer financial and technical support to European and Central Asian states following the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, was in Tashkent for its annual meeting.


When the broadcast ended, the 64-year-old editor and two cameramen were summoned to state television director Ahmad Azam’s office, where they were asked to write an explanatory report. Ibrahimov was then informed that he was fired, and the other two employees were given strong reprimands. The channel’s deputy chairman Farkhad Ruziev was also disciplined for appointing Ibrahimov to direct coverage of the EBRD meeting in the first place.


Human Rights Watch’s Uzbek representative Matilda Bogner spoke out against the dismissal of the long-serving Ibrahimov, and said that the state company’s reaction to the coverage cast a further shadow on Uzbekistan’s civil liberties record.


“There are very few hopes for improvement,” she told IWPR. “If the government wanted to show its willingness to make changes, it would loosen its hold on the mass media. The dismissal of this man is a vivid example of state control over the press.”


Bogner believes that EBRD should have insisted on improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights record before the start of the Tashkent meeting, saying, “The authorities won’t feel obliged to carry out the bank’s demands now.”


Any hope that the republic’s citizens may have felt before the meeting was soon dashed by the reality of Uzbekistan’s economic and social difficulties.


During the EBRD visit, the difference between the state and black market exchange rates stabilised at ten per cent – a point of pride for the authorities. However, this doubled after the meeting.


Analysts also claim that Tashkent’s markets were “manipulated” during the bank’s visit, with sellers wearing Uzbek national dress and selling their wares at artificially low prices.


Potatoes were on sale for 30 sums a kilogramme instead of the usual price of 400 sum (around 40 US cents). And a similar amount of meat was being offered for a tenth of its normal cost, 2,500 sum.


“We changed all the price lists especially for a visit by the European bank delegation,” a potato seller told IWPR. And one Tashkent butcher admitted that he had done the same with his tariffs, but laughed, “Of course I didn’t actually sell the meat to anyone at that price – I’m not mad.”


However, these tactics prompted only bleak grins and ironic comments from the EBRD delegates, all of whom were well informed about the real cost of consumer goods in Tashkent.


Political scientist Bahodir Musaev was unsurprised by the price-changes. “Lies are one of the basic components of Uzbek political life - and this is very dangerous, as deceit and double standards contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said.


“This society needs truth, discussion, transparency in everything - but we get the opposite. That is why I have little hope that the EBRD’s request for political liberalization will be granted.”


It has been estimated that Uzbekistan spent around 40 million dollars in preparation for the EBRD’s visit. Four top-flight hotels were constructed in Tashkent and 30 Mercedes luxury cars were bought to transport the delegates. Roads were repaired, streets were decorated and lavish receptions thrown.


But analysts point out that the delegates will not be fooled by these measures – and will instead look beyond the window dressing to the harsh reality of human rights abuses and poor economic reforms.


The sacking of the loyal Ibrahimov is another step backwards, which many observers believe will eventually backfire on President Karimov’s regime.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR director in Uzbekistan


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