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

Uzbeks Coerced into Buying State Papers

The Tashkent authorities have reverted to an old soviet ploy to increase circulation of dull state newspapers.
By Mohammad Ashurali

The Yusopov household celebrated New Year with a meagre spread. There were no presents, no sweets, not even a tree for the children.

There was no money for such luxuries because housewife Tojikhol Yusopova was forced to spend half her monthly unemployment benefit payments on subscriptions to newspapers she doesn't even want to read.

She cried and begged the Jizak authorities to be excused from paying, explaining that, seasonal festivities aside, her children would go hungry if she lost any of her paltry state benefit of around three US dollars, which, she says, "is not even enough to pay for bread".

But Khusan Arzikulov, chairman of the local resident's association in Jizak, 180 km south-west of Tashkent, wouldn't budge, saying his own job was on the line if he didn't take the money. He then threatened to cut her benefits entirely if she continued to complain.

The practice of mandatory subscription to state papers and magazines has been employed since soviet times as a means of spreading government propaganda. But with sales figures plummeting, the authorities have to coerce more and more readers.

People are buying fewer papers than they used to, not only because the drop in living standards make them unaffordable, but also because they can't stomach the official spiel which fills them.

"We're losing readers," said Sergei Yezhkov, an employee at Uzbekistan's biggest national newspaper, Pravda Vostoka. "People don't believe us and as a result the state is losing a means of forming public opinion."

Pravda Vostoka's circulation has fallen from around 200,000 at the end of the Eighties to around 10,000.

The authorities in Tashkent take the view that if people won't buy their message voluntarily, they need to be compelled to do so. And they launched their biggest forced subscription drive at the end of last year, with teachers amongst the hardest hit. In November, they were told that they wouldn't be receiving their salaries of around five dollars - the money going into subscription costs instead.

"They're infringing our rights," said secondary school teacher Aziza. "Why should we pay for those boring newspapers when we can hardly feed our kids?"

According to an employee at the main post office in Jizak, 28,000 dollars worth of salaries were transferred to the accounts of government newspapers in November.

The deputy governor of Jizak province, Zulpan Asanov, said that his boss, Ubaidula Yamankulov, had taken personal control of meeting subscription targets of six national and three regional papers, which had been set by the authorities in Tashkent.

When launching the 2002 subscription drive, Yamankulov warned the heads of every state body that they would be held personally responsible for hitting the targets, leaving it in no doubt whose heads would roll if they failed.

The boss of the main subscription office in Jizak, Urozali Norboev, said four local managers had already been fired for "negligence in organising the subscription campaign".

Norboev said targets for 2002 are three times higher than last year. The one and a half million inhabitants of Jizak province are expected to fork out around 700,000 dollars for state newspapers. "That's never happened before," said Norboev.

Even if they did have the money, it's doubtful many more people would buy any of the official publications.

"I don't read the Uzbek press as there's no truth in it and it doesn't reflect real life in Uzbekistan," said Tatyana Mikhailova, a teacher in Tashkent. "Everything is written in such joyful tones as if everything is just wonderful here. It's only worth buying them for their televisions listings and crosswords."

Changing the content of the papers to make them more attractive seems not to have occurred to the authorities. Media analyst Karim Bakhriev said an improvement in the journalism would lead to increased sales. People are buying expensive Russian newspapers like Trud and Argumenty i Fakty, he said, because there's a "demand and a need for information".

Mohammed Ashurali ugli is the pseudonym for an independent journalist in Uzbekistan

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