Freedom of the Press
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The aftermath of government crackdowns over the last two years left an already barren media landscape even more desolate in 2007. Despite nominal constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and restrictions on prepublication censorship, Uzbek authorities showed no respect for these rights, and criticism of the president is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Libel is a criminal offense, but very few journalists have been prosecuted under this law, as most independent reporters have either fled or censored themselves. After a new media resolution tightened controls in 2006, President Islam Karimov approved legislation in January 2007 that holds the media accountable for “objectivity” and defines websites as media outlets, thereby requiring them to register annually with the Ministry of Information and to submit regular content reports to the authorities.
In 2007, state-controlled Uzbek media mounted a coordinated smear campaign against Alisher Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizen in southern Kyrgyzstan who ran the Uzbek-language newspaper Siosat, which was critical of President Karimov. The campaign described Saipov as a Western stooge and traitor. Shortly thereafter, Saipov was shot dead in Kyrgyzstan in October, although no direct evidence has emerged to support the widely held belief that Uzbek authorities were involved in the killing. In a separate case, Umida Niyazova, a journalist with the Central Asian news website Oasis and a stringer for a number of international organizations like Internews and Human Rights Watch, was arrested in January and charged with transporting contraband. She was convicted in May, sentenced to a seven-year prison term, and subsequently freed, but only after she was forced to sign a confession blaming international organizations for her plight. The incident took on a dark light in view of past evidence of coerced confessions in the Uzbek justice system. Meanwhile, Dzhamshid Karimov, an independent journalist and the president’s nephew, was one of five journalists who remained in prison in 2007. Karimov was forcibly hospitalized in a psychiatric ward in September 2006 and was kept there despite reports of his deteriorating health.
International journalists were also subject to government pressure. In fact, Uzbek authorities have undertaken a concerted campaign against foreign-funded media following the outbreak of domestic unrest in 2005, and local reporters are formally forbidden from working for international outlets. In 2007, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America remained unable to broadcast from within Uzbekistan. Stringers for Deutsche Welle, one of the last remaining international news outlets operating within the country, were subject to harassment. Correspondent Natalya Bushuyeva fled the country after authorities charged her with tax evasion and working with foreign media outlets—charges that could have led to a three-year prison sentence. Three other Deutsche Welle stringers were also charged with tax evasion and working without accreditation. Although these charges were later dropped, it had the effect of silencing a number of the reporters. In October, Sid Yanyshev, a reporter for the U.K.-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was attacked by unidentified individuals.
The government in 2007 continued to control most national dailies and television stations, as well as the publishing houses and printing presses that are responsible for the majority of the country’s print media. A few private printing presses produced independent publications, but the circulation of these was severely limited. Virtually all media were linked either directly or indirectly to the state and were manipulated by the government to present a carefully constructed picture of an ideal reality, with occasional forays into limited criticism. While it is relatively straightforward to enter the media business, as taxes and licensing fees are not exorbitant, outlets with 30 percent or more foreign ownership are prohibited from operating at all, and the requirement to pay reregistration fees each year is a constant disincentive. The closure in July of Odam Orasida, an Islamic-oriented weekly in the capital city of Tashkent, may have been linked to its willingness to write about such taboo issues as prostitution and homosexuality; however, other reports suggested that authorities decided to close it when its circulation rose to 24,000 and its popularity began to outpace that of staid publications.
The Uzbek authorities also appeared to step up their efforts to crack down on freedom of speech online in 2007. While exiled Uzbek journalists were able to operate news sites from abroad with a focus on human rights issues, reports indicated an increase in government efforts to block opposition and independent websites in the lead-up to the December presidential election, in which President Karimov was reelected easily to a constitutionally dubious third term. Blocking efforts extended beyond websites with materials critical of the government to tools intended to retain the user’s privacy online, including proxies and anonymizers, which further hampered access to outside points of view. Although 6 percent of the Uzbek population is estimated to be online (a relatively high percentage by regional standards), many users access the internet in institutional settings, where state controls and the possibility of surveillance cripple their ability to obtain sorely needed independent perspectives on events inside the country.