Virtual Unreality in Uzbekistan

Analysts say increased internet obstructions are making the news blackout worse in the run-up to the presidential election.

Virtual Unreality in Uzbekistan

Analysts say increased internet obstructions are making the news blackout worse in the run-up to the presidential election.

With presidential polls only weeks away, internet users in Uzbekistan report that access to sites carrying independent news websites and reflecting opposition viewpoints is becoming more and more restricted. Even the proxy servers through which banned sites can be seen are now blocked.



Observers warn that these internet restrictions mean voters will have even less access than before to coverage of the December 23 election.



Media in Uzbekistan are owned and tightly controlled by the state. Although censorship is outlawed by the constitution, no news goes out without being carefully vetted. There are no domestic sources of independent information, so the internet offers a lifeline.



Few people inside the country have access to the web, though; official figures quoted by the BBC say there were just 1.7 million internet users in 2007, out of a population of nearly 28 million. Most people go online at work, in educational establishments and in internet cafes.



On November 21, the Central Electoral Committee registered four candidates for the election – current president Islam Karimov, nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party; Diloram Tashmuhammedova of the Adolat party; Akmal Saidov, the head of a government human rights agency who is standing as an independent; and Asliddin Rustamov from the People’s Democratic Party.



Campaigning began the following day, and speeches by the candidates are to be carried by national radio, television and newspapers.



Analysts say the president’s four challengers all back him and are standing only to create the illusion of choice. Karimov, one of Central Asia’s most authoritarian leaders, has stifled all forms of opposition in the country.



Following events in Andijan in May 2005, when foreign media organisations reported on the violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in the eastern city by authorities, the Uzbek government launched a crackdown on foreign media organisations. The BBC, Internews and IWPR were all forced to close their operations in Uzbekistan down, while the correspondent for Germany’s Deutsche Welle was refused accreditation early in 2006.



According to the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders, RSF, all local service providers have been forced to work with the state-controlled telecoms operator Uzbektelecom since November 2005, giving the regime greater control.



Sites blocked since 2005 include those of banned opposition parties Erk and Birlik, those of human rights organisations, and also news sites with a Central Asian or specifically Uzbek focus, such as Uznews.net, Arena, Tribuna.uz, Fergana.ru and Centrasia.ru.



One journalist, who wished to stay anonymous, told IWPR that the number of blocked sites had recently increased substantially.



“The situation couldn’t be worse,” he said.



The journalist reeled off a list of the sites that were now impossible to access in Uzbekistan - “ the sites of [Russian] Kommersant, [Kazakstan’s] Delovaya Nedelya and other newspapers which provide serious coverage of Central Asian politics, most of the news resources from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, all foreign news agency sites, international NGOs, and even online archives on the history of the Central Asian nations”.



Until recently, people were able to access many of these banned sites through proxy servers – computers that take information from elsewhere on the web and make it available at a different URL address. Proxy servers and anonymisers are also used to conceal an internet user’s identity. All users accessing sites through a proxy appear to have the same IP (internet protocol) address, which makes it harder to track which individuals are accessing a given site.



But while internet users have developed ingenious ways to work around the restrictions, government controls are becoming wider in scope and increasingly sophisticated. In 2002, the government established UzInfoCom, which is formally an IT development agency but is widely believed to be devising new ways of controlling access to the internet.



Analysts say they suspect the government’s IT specialists are now starting to block the proxy-servers that have sprung up since wide-scale blocking started in 2005.



Since early November, many internet cafes have begun warning customers not to visit prohibited websites such as those which express opposition views or foreign sites covering the Central Asian region.



A journalist in Kashkadarya, a region in southeastern Uzbekistan, said internet café staff were exerting tighter control over their customers.



“I was recently in an internet café and tried to go to the Fergana.ru site via a proxy server to read news about the Uzbek election campaign. An administrator came up to me immediately and asked why I was doing it, what I was reading and who I was,” he said.



A once frequent visitor to internet cafés in the western city of Bukhara said he stopped going to public places to surf the web after discovering that staff were monitoring him.



“An administrator forgot herself and started reading out my emails to her friend,” he said. “I know that these administrators are always instructed to watch out for suspect clients.”



Visitors to internet cafés around the country say they have to submit a written list of web addresses they have visited, and administrators also demand to see any material that a customer plans to write onto a memory stick. Others say the USB ports for memory sticks and other storage devices have been removed from computers, while word-processing packages have been tampered with to block toolbar buttons such as “copy”, “save” and “send”.



An internet café manager in Bukhara insisted that most websites that are blocked contain pornographic material.



“We do block sites, but not those that carry news,” he explained. “Mostly it’s porn sites. If we blocked news sites, we’d lose customers. It wouldn’t be to our advantage.”



Other internet café staff said they had received instructions to keep closer watch on the internet to prevent the spread of computer viruses.



One person in the northwestern city of Navoi, for example, said that if customers wanted to attach a file to an email, they had to hand over their memory stick to staff, who copied the file to their central computer and from there made it available to the user’s terminal.



“We don’t know what they plan to send, so we keep a copy of the file just in case,” he said.



However, a internet café manager in the capital Tashkent admitted that staff had been ordered to restrict access to certain sites. The authorities send out emails to providers instructing them which sites must remain closed to visitors, and they have to comply for fear of losing their licenses.



“The most popular method of blocking sites in Uzbek internet cafes is to add the site address to a blacklist on the server, and then it becomes inaccessible,” said the manager. “It’s also possible to replace the URL address so that instead of accessing the particular site the user wants, they will go to a completely different one - for instance, to some search engine.”



A member of a Tashkent-based human rights organisation suspects the authorities are also deliberately making general access to the internet more difficult. For the last six months, he said, he has finding it increasingly difficult to post material on his own site because the network goes down so often.



“I think the authorities are anxious to limit public awareness of the presidential election,” he said. “Our IT specialists are having to acquire new software and devise all kinds of IT fixes to speed up access to our site and post information on it.”



(Names of interviewees have been withheld in the interests of their security.)

Support our journalists