Uzbekistan: Media Reforms Under Attack

Government denies claims that its much trumpeted media reforms are a sham

Uzbekistan: Media Reforms Under Attack

Government denies claims that its much trumpeted media reforms are a sham

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A representative of the Uzbek president's office has dismissed a damning report by an international press organisation on media reforms as "premature and vague".

An assessment by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, CPJ, of Uzbekistan's newspapers and broadcasters had concluded that no positive changes had resulted from government abolition of censorship in May.

"These are the authoritarian reforms of an dictatorial regime which has kept all its old mechanisms for putting pressure on journalists," said Alexander Lupis, CPJ program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, at a Tashkent press conference on June 10.

However, president's spokesman Sherzod Kudratkhodjaev described the group's conclusions as "a hasty statement", adding that immediate results could not be expected.

He also accused the CPJ of presenting findings that did not reflect the whole media and alleged the report was based on the opinions of "resentful" journalists.

According to CPJ, after the authorities scrapped censorship, the media were warned that editors would bear full responsibility if "undesirable" material appearing in print or on air provoked trouble.

Many reporters feel that this has resulted in self-censorship, which reduces the impact and significance of the abolition of media restrictions.

However, Kudratkhodjaev countered that while media bosses may have been reminded of their editorial responsibilities, the government has no policy of issuing individual warnings.

CPJ believes the government has retained control of the media through its law-enforcement agencies - who are prepared to use threats, persecution, and even arrest and trial to stop reporters covering contentious issues.

"The government understands that it will get help from western countries if human rights are observed in Uzbekistan and media reforms are made, so they abolished censorship. But the reality of the situation undermines the significance of this move," said Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who sits on the CPJ board.

Khudratkhodjaev refutes this, claiming that the decision was made primarily to protect government interests and to benefit the Uzbek people.

Yet critical articles are still meeting with punishment in Uzbekistan and the nation's press remains virtually unchanged.

Dilmurod Said, a correspondent for the Tashkent newspaper Mokhiyat, claims that on May 24 a group of policemen stood aside and watched as hooligans beat him up after the publication of a critical article on unemployment.

"While I was being beaten, the policemen told me 'now you'll know what to write about and what to keep silent about'. This is evidence that I was attacked because of the article," he told IWPR.

Another Mokhiyat reporter told how its editor-in-chief, Abdukayum Yuldashev, was called to the phone several times to deal with complaints from the president's office over publication of poems by disgraced opposition party member Rauf Parfi, who has long been denied a voice in the Uzbek press.

According to CPJ representatives, Uzbekistan officials admitted having problems with the media but claimed that, as a young state, a free press was a luxury that could not yet be afforded.

But at the same time, according to Lupis, the state can afford to waste time and resources on pressuring journalists. "Courts, police, the national security service, the state press committee - they all waste time and money to watch journalists and force them to be silent," he claimed.

CPJ believes that Uzbekistan is the only country in Europe and Central Asia that still imprisons its journalists, with three - Muhammad Bekjanov and Usuf Ruzimuradov from the banned opposition paper Erl and Madjid Abduraimov from the republican weekly Yangi Asr - currently in detention. It is demanding their release and has also asked for a number of reforms.

They want an official guarantee that exiled independent television head Shukhrat Babadjanov can return to Uzbekistan and that television station ALC in Urgench be reopened; stop using the courts to persecute independent publications such as the newspaper Oina in Samarkand; and reform or abolish the state press committee and the interdepartmental coordination committee, which give out and recall licenses. Only an independent court should have the right to close down a media body, says the CPJ.

Arnett and his fellow board members now face a wait to see if the government will accept and implement these reforms. "We were told that our recommendations will be examined," he said.

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