On the tenth anniversary of the Andijan massacre, the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders (ROG) has called on the Uzbek government to cease systematic surveillance, intimidation and persecution of independent journalists. According to ROG, media censorship in Uzbekistan has been massively intensified since the massacre of 13 May 2005. Meanwhile, almost all independent journalists in the country are in prison or have been forced to leave their homes.
“Uzbekistan’s government has criminalized free reporting so comprehensively that there are practically no independent media in the country anymore,” said ROG Managing Director Christian Mihr. “As a first step towards an end to censorship, President Karimov should release all detained journalists.”
On 13 May 2005, government troops in Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan opened fire on some 10,000 participants in a demonstration against poverty, unemployment and repression, killing hundreds of people. Since then, President Islam Karimov’s regime has further intensified the already strong repression against the media. Reports that do not portray the Andijan massacre as the work of extremists, as the government had wished, have been suppressed. Among the taboo topics for the media are human rights violations, corruption and environmental problems. There are currently nine journalists in prison for their work.
Foreign media such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe were also forced to leave the country in the months following the massacre. To date, only a few correspondents of international media have received permission to travel to Uzbekistan for research purposes.
Extension Of Control To The Internet
The government is also increasingly seeking to extend its control beyond the traditional media and to the Internet. Access to independent and government-critical websites has been blocked for years. An expert commission for information and mass communication founded in 2011 is to regulate the Internet and censor content that could destabilize the public and political situation or conflict with national and cultural traditions.
To this end, the agency monitors the Internet with state-of-the-art technology from China, Russia and Western countries and closes loopholes to circumvent censorship. Social networks such as Facebook, its Russian counterpart Odnoklassniki, Twitter and YouTube are regularly targeted by hacker attacks in Uzbekistan.
Exile Media Are Also Pursued
Due to the complete censorship of the state media, exile media are the most important source of independent information in Uzbekistan. The few remaining independent journalists work for such news websites operated abroad, including Ferghana, Radio Ozodliq and Jarayon. But even their employees are not safe from persecution by the Uzbek regime.
On 17 April, for example, journalist Dmitry Tikhonov, who writes regularly for Ferghana, was attacked by several men on the open street in the city of Angren in eastern Uzbekistan. The attack was preceded by an online smear campaign against the journalist initiated by the local government after he had reported critically on the demolition of a World War Memorial in Angren in March.
Last December, the leading news site Uznews.net was forced to shut down almost ten years after its founding because it was no longer able to adequately protect its employees reporting from Uzbekistan undercover. One month earlier, the email account of the founder and editor-in-chief Galima Bukharbaeva had been hacked and sensitive data such as the names of her employees had been posted on the Internet. The secret service now threatens the journalists with charges of tax evasion if Uznews.net resumes its work.
Release Demanded For Imprisoned Journalists
Again and again journalists are brought to justice under false accusations and sentenced to prison sentences, some of which last many years, in order to silence them. Salijon Abdurakhmanow, for example, who regularly wrote for media such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America or Uznews.net on topics such as corruption and human rights issues, will also spend his 65th birthday in prison on 26 May. He was arrested in 2008 in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan after police found drugs in his car during a traffic check.
The placement of such false evidence and criminal charges are common practice of Uzbek authorities to discredit and remove critics from circulation. Abdurakhmanov was sentenced to ten years in prison for selling drugs. As a result of his poor prison conditions and inadequate medical care, his health has deteriorated dramatically since then. Reporters Without Borders petition President Karimov for the immediate release of the journalist.
Mohammed Bekjanow, one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists for her work, is also still in prison. The former editor of the opposition newspaper Erk was sentenced to 13 years in prison for aiding and abetting terrorism after a confession forced by torture in 1999. A few days before the end of his sentence, it was extended in January 2012 for a further four years and eight months for disobedience to prison staff. Bekyanov was awarded the ROG Prize for Freedom of the Press in 2013. Uzbekistan ranks 166th out of 180 countries in the press freedom rankings.