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Voice of America Goes Quiet in Uzbekistan

United States broadcaster’s decision to end Uzbek radio broadcasts could not have come at a worse time.
By IWPR

The decision of the United States broadcaster Voice of America, VOA, to stop beaming radio programmes to Uzbekistan has been met with an equal measure of bewilderment and disappointment by its loyal audience.


The move, coming at a time of renewed violence in the country, has left listeners complaining that they have lost an important source of news about Uzbekistan – a rare commodity in a country so dominated by state-controlled media.


The end of Uzbek-language programmes from the US government-funded broadcaster could not have been timed worse. The last broadcast went out on the evening of July 31 – a day after suicide bombers attacked the US and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek prosecutor’s office in the capital Tashkent.


The government of Uzbekistan developed close ties with the US after September 11, 2001, by making an airbase available to American forces engaged in the campaign in Afghanistan. But relations with the international community have remained troubled by concerns over human rights.


People in Uzbekistan have little access to independent news: apart from VOA, only Radio Liberty, the BBC and Iran offer programmes in Uzbek. Russian-language programmes from such external broadcasters are also widely understood, but the content is not specific to Uzbekistan.


IWPR’s investigations suggest that the decision to axe VOA’s Uzbek programmes was not, as might have been suspected, related to the complexities of US-Uzbek relations.


In a final broadcast, Uzbek service chief Nusratullah Lahib explained that the reason was the failure to reach a wider audience, principally because VOA was still broadcasting to Uzbekistan only on difficult-to-hear short wave frequencies, rather than medium wave (AM) or VHF.


“In March 2004, a group of independent American experts visited Tashkent to check the quality of broadcasting and conduct an audience survey. Their analysis showed that not everyone has access to the short waves on which our programmes are broadcast. That is why we failed to gain a big audience,” said Lahib.


He also reminded listeners of the Uzbek service’s long history – it was launched as far back as 1971, when the republic was part of the Soviet Union.


Brian Mabry, a senior advisor with the VOA’s International Broadcast Bureau, told IWPR that although dedicated radio programming had halted, the station “continues to have a strong Uzbek-language presence”.


Mabry said Uzbek service staff were still making programmes, but now for a different medium – television, through which VOA says it can reach a much wider audience.


Since the end of 2003, VOA has been making regular programmes in Uzbek which are relayed by private TV stations – currently 15 of them - in the country. Access to commercial outlets has clear benefits, according to Mabry, because “the tightly-controlled media in Uzbekistan means US international broadcasting has to rely predominantly on short wave to reach the country with radio”.


Another rationale for VOA ending its radio broadcasts is that another US government-funded broadcaster, Radio Liberty, already enjoys better access to the airways.


“While VOA has moved to broadcasting in Uzbek on television, its sister broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [RFE/RL] continues to reach Uzbekistan, broadcasting by short wave and medium wave radio. RFE/RL broadcasts seven hours of Uzbek-language radio daily,” said Mabry.


Listeners such as human rights activist Bakhtior Hamroev say the new TV programming is no substitute for the old VOA news bulletins, which contained information that would otherwise go unreported in local media.


Mabry told IWPR that the two vehicles now used by VOA were a five-minute weekday programme called "Scenes From America" and a half-hour weekly magazine programme, "Exploring America."


But Hamroev complained that “Scenes From America” talks about culture, art, education, science and so on. There is not a word about politics in these ‘portraits’.”


Although the short wave radio audience may be small, the audience for the new commercial TV stations is also restricted by the low average income in the country.


“I am a pensioner, I don’t have cable TV… I am forced to watch [state] Uzbek TV programmes where when the news starts, they show sports,” said Tashkent-resident, Boris Primazon.


Many of those interviewed by IWPR felt they had lost an important window on the world which also told them what was going on in their own country.


“For people in Uzbekistan it’s bad that the VOA’s Uzbek programmes have stopped, as they were a good source of information,” said Mutabar Ahmedova, an Amnesty International member in Tashkent. “But for Uzbek officials, I think it was a good thing that another voice was shut down.”


Yuldoshboy Ubaidullaev, a listener in the eastern Andijan region, said, “Those who closed the Uzbek service of VOA wanted to hide the truth from us…. I used to tell friends and family in my village about what I’d heard on Voice of America.”


Cassandra Cavanaugh, the Advocacy and Grants Director with the Open Society Institute in New York, and familiar with Uzbekistan, agreed that word-of-mouth is an important means by which information can be shared in an information-starved society. Even if the actual audience, is limited, “a lot of people talk about what they hear”, she said.


The very existence of channels of information that are not controlled and censored by the Uzbek government is in itself important. “In a total desert, the smallest well can provide life. Any alternative source is valuable, no matter how difficult it is to access it,” said Cavanaugh.


One perplexing aspect of VOA’s decision is that after September 2001, the Uzbek service – which targeted Afghanistan’s substantial ethnic Uzbek community as well as the Central Asian audience – received a boost. At the time, William Royce of VOA's South and Central Asia Division announced a broadcast increase by saying, “We want the Uzbek people to receive reliable, accurate news and information on events in the world and in neighbouring Afghanistan, along with clear statements of US government policies and actions in the war against terrorism."


Under a strategic partnership agreement which the US and Uzbek governments signed in 2002, VOA Uzbek broadcasts increased from 30 minutes to an hour a day.


The station recruited more journalists, and producers became more ambitious, making programmes dealing with controversial issues such as corruption high up in government, and reports on the inner circle of President Islam Karimov.


US-based Central Asian expert Martha Brill Olcott believes VOA’s decision was poorly conceived. “It is a demonstration of the confusion that prevails in the Bush administration that the US closes down the VOA Uzbek service at the very time that the US Department of State has cut funding to Uzbekistan because of what it deemed lack of sufficient progress in the area of human rights and in adherence to democratic goals.”


Olcott said that that she understands technical and financial constraints played a part, but longer-term policy objectives of supporting democracy should not have been disregarded.


“Access to AM or FM airwaves in a competitive commercial market is difficult. But bad reception is better than no reception, which will now be the case in Uzbekistan,” she said. “Once again, the problems of the Central Asian regime have been assigned to the back burner by the U.S. administration - but that does not mean they will go away.”


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