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Uzbekistan: A Small Dose of Media Freedom
Analysts remain sceptical over the true extent of Uzbekistan’s movement on press freedom, despite apparent moves to liberalise the media environment.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced his authoritarian predecessor Islam Karimov in December 2016, he has instituted a number of strategic reforms that appear to signal an intention to open up what was one of the world’s most isolated states.
Most recently, in early May, Uzbekistan restored access to a swathe of previously banned foreign outlets. These included Voice of America, Amerika ovozi, BBC Uzbek, Deutsche Welle, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Eurasianet.org and Uzmetronom.
Some sites, such as AsiaTerra and the Fergana news agency, had been banned for years due to their critical coverage of the regime’s actions.
But Nadezhda Ataeva, the president of the Human Rights in Central Asia Association, said that this apparent relaxation should not be taken at face value.
“Access to the internet remains at a very low level,” she continued. “The list of unblocked websites announced is also a decision the authorities have made on a selective basis as not all human rights and international websites are available to internet users in Uzbekistan. The reaction to criticism of officials is still very intolerant.”
Indeed, many key sites such as the Uzbek service of Radio Liberty, Foreign Policy, Nastoyascheye Vremya, Kloop.kg, Snob.ru, Cotton Campaign, Dozhd TV channel and 365info.kz remain inaccessible.
Ataeva noted that since Mirziyoyev came to power, almost all state agencies have developed official websites and social media accounts. New online media had emerged and a National Press Centre and online office of the president were opened.
“However, the policy of these resources is still governed by tacit instructions given by top-ranking officials who are responsible for their control and determining their dose of freedom,” Ataeva said.
Ataeva argued that only the development of civil society could boost independent journalism, but “the authorities of Uzbekistan are still unreasonably cautious of activists and critics of the regime”.
Last year, Uzbekistan took 165th place out of 180 in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders. Among other Central Asian states, only Turkmenistan ranked worse at 178. In this year’s report the situation had slightly improved, with Uzbekistan rising five places.
Daniil Kislov, the founder and general director of Fergana - blocked in Uzbekistan in 2005 due to its coverage of the violence in Andizhan – made clear that his news agency was ready to test the limits of press freedom in Uzbekistan.
The first challenge, he said, was to demand full legal status in the country.
“I cannot predict what will happen in Uzbekistan, but I know what we are going to do,” Kislov continued. “We will be waiting for the accreditation of our reporters and of our news office [two different things) by the foreign ministry. We are going to become a media outlet, which competes with local media in equal working conditions and with equal rights.”
In February, officials announced that Uzbekistan would introduce an accreditation system for reporters by early summer.
The Agency of Information and Mass Communications announced that this new system would allow accredited journalists unfettered access to state-run organisations and information.
However, it is unclear whether all reporters, including independent ones, will be eligible for the card and just what degree of access to information will be allowed.
A dedicated ombudsman will also be established to both monitor legal compliance and act as a mediator in disputes between the media and government bodies or individuals.
But similarly, the independence and impartiality of this body remains in doubt as it will report to the Agency of Information and Mass Communications.
Media outlets in Uzbekistan have always been subject to strict censorship, and thus far there appears to have been little change to this policy. Critics note the arrest of Said-Abdulaziz Yusupov, the director of a public foundation supporting independent media, on fraud charges on May 10.
According to several news websites, a number of journalists were called to a meeting with officials from the Agency of Information and Mass Communications and specifically warned not to cover the ongoing case.
AsiaTerra, one of the outlets to publish these allegations, was blocked in Uzbekistan in 2014, a few months after its establishment, after it published an article describing the surveillance of OSCE election observers.
Its editor Aleksei Volosevich said he was not very optimistic that any reforms would be permanent or extensive.
“An unblocked website is surely an advantage, but the problem is it can be temporary because everything in Uzbekistan depends not on the law, but on the order of the authorities,” he said. “The media’s prospects are directly related to the fate of the country: if everything is fine, the media will be strong, and if the country gets into stagnation or harsh dictatorship, many strong journalists will leave.”
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