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

Uzbekistan: TV Report Row May End in Court

State television threatens to sue Radio Liberty, claiming it libelled one of its journalists.
By IWPR staff

Rahmatjon Kuldashev, head of the RFE/RL Tashkent bureau.

Producers of a state television news programme are threatening legal action against the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for broadcasting a report accusing one of its journalists of deception.

The dispute between Akhborot, which acts as a mouthpiece for the Uzbek government, and the US-funded station broke out after the latter broadcast two reports on May 5 and May 8 alleging that Muhammadjon Obidov, an Akhborot correspondent in the Fergana region, had fabricated elements of a story about a collective farm.

On April 25 Obidov filmed a report from the cotton fields of a collective farm in the Fergana region. It included shots of female farm workers being handed their wages, with a voice over claiming, “the prompt payment of wages increases the productivity of the workers”. The women were seen approaching a table one after another, receiving their money and signing a register.

After the report was broadcast as part of the Akhborot programme the following evening, several of the women shown came forward saying that the payment was a sham and that they had not actually received their salaries since September last year. They claimed that as soon as they walked out of shot, the money was taken from them to pay other workers.

Many of the women involved said that they had felt humiliated by the report. One worker, Uktamkhon Kadyrova, told IWPR, “If they had left us even only 500 sums (50 US cents) each, we would not complain, but it seems they don’t regard us as humans at all.”

When the women saw the broadcast they approached the chair of the local community organisation, or mahalla, Tuyul Erkin Kuziev, for help. Through Kuziev and Khalkparvar, human rights NGO, the incident was brought to the attention of Radio Liberty’s correspondent in the Fergana valley, Nosir Zokir.

Rahmatjon Kuldashev, director of Radio Liberty’s Tashkent bureau, insists that the story they broadcast accusing Obidov of deception was accurate.

“We broadcast the truth. Five reliable sources confirmed our facts. We also sent an inquiry to the administration of the Fergana region and gave Obidov an opportunity to reply, in which he said that the women’s accusation were unfounded.”

In an interview with IWPR, Obidov stood by his story, “I have all the registers and written testimonies from farm workers proving that they received the money. Radio Liberty has libelled us.”

Following the critical broadcasts, the Akhborot team returned to the farm to prepare another report to rebut the accusations made in the Radio Liberty story.

However, the villagers have now accused the journalist of further distortions in attempt to justify his initial story. One shot showed Tuyul Erkin Kuziev in a cemetery on May 9, Remembrance Day in Uzbekistan - the item suggesting that he was atoning for his role in the bogus Radio Liberty report.

“I was sitting in the cemetery praying when the cameraman filmed me. Later on when I saw my sad face on Akhborot, the commentary claimed I was looking down because I felt ashamed and was repentant [for reporting the women’s claims to Radio Liberty]. How can they not be ashamed of juggling the facts like that?”

Bobur Alikhonov, Akhborot’s editor, says that they have already conducted a full investigation into Radio Liberty’s claims and fully support their journalist.

“It has to be said directly that Radio Liberty’s material is completely false,” said Alikhanov. “Nothing in their reports has been confirmed and I doubt the authenticity of the statements made by the women.

“If Radio Liberty does not apologise, we will go to court.”

Mutabar Tajibaeva, head of a local NGO in Fergana, says few people trust Akhborot and have become even more suspicious in recent weeks.

Since Radio Liberty broadcast the report on Akhborot and the local authorities, she says a remarkable transformation has taken place at the farm.

Following a decision by the Fergana department of the state conservation committee, dated May 17, work on a new pipe for drinking water and irrigation has started. Work has also begun on erecting pylons to provide the village with an electricity supply. And arrears on salaries and pensions are being paid off.

Meanwhile, Kuldashev says the station is confident it got its facts right, “ We are not going to waste our airtime by repeatedly justifying our story as Akhborot is doing - we broadcast news.”

(Rahmatjon Kuldashev, director of RFE/RL bureau in Tashkent, is pictured)