Last week, the trial of two journalists and two businessmen accused of plotting to overthrow the government began in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Breaking with past precedent, the trial has been open to press and human rights organizations. As such, it has become a test case for the limits of Uzbekistan’s reforms under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, particularly as they apply to domestic politics and matters of free speech.
Bobomurod Abdullaev, a freelance journalist, blogger Hayot Nasriddinov, and businessmen Ravshan Salaev and Shavkat Olloyorov have been charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime.” The charge is rooted in a series of articles published under the byline Usman Haqnazarov, a pseudonym reportedly used by more than one individual. The articles were critical of the regime of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, who died in the fall of 2016.
In a dispatch for Human Rights Watch, Steve Swerdlow and Viktoriya Kim — a researcher and senior coordinator, respectively, for HRW — categorized the trial as a “long-awaited reunion,” calling the atmosphere both “festive and tragic.”
With Human Rights Watch back inside an Uzbek courtroom for the first time in years, we saw Daniil Kislov, editor of the Fergana News website, who was visiting Tashkent after 14 years in exile, alongside reporters from officially registered media outlets – gazeta.uz and kun.uz – whose very presence two years ago would have been inconceivable.
HRW, which was allowed back into Uzbekistan in the summer fall of 2017, released a report recently chronicling the state of media and censorship in the country. It’s a complex picture in which progress is acknowledged, but put in perspective.
The report, titled “You Can’t See Them, but They’re Always There”: Censorship and Freedom of the Media in Uzbekistan, touches on several specific cases and outlines recommendations for the government and international partners. Importantly, the report discusses the gulf that continues to exist between censorship and genuine free speech in Uzbekistan. One section worth exploring in-depth focused on censorship, self-censorship, and accreditation barriers. A state can officially and loudly denounce censorship, but it is not so easy to erase the ingrained fear that a writer could be arrested for something they write or to remove the many administrative barriers that keep media out.
As Swerdlow commented in a recent interview with Voice of America Uzbek’s Navbahor Imamova, many government officials comment that there is no censorship in Uzbekistan but some, he said, acknowledged the role of security services and others in pressuring media either directly or indirectly.
Abdullaev’s case is an example of such pressure. It’s direct pressure on Abdullaev, but also exerts indirect pressure on other journalists considering broaching sensitive topics.
The same goes for the case of Nurullo Otakhonov — the author who was invited to return to Uzbekistan, did so, and was immediately arrested. Otakhonov was released but still faces charges and his novel, These Days, has been labeled “extremist” by an Uzbek Print and Telecommunications Agency commission. He remains under house arrest but HRW says that he has not heard anything about the investigation since November.
On the administrative front, the HRW report notes that despite announcing that the BBC would be allowed to return to Uzbekistan, it has yet to receive accreditation for a local correspondent after more than nine months. At the same time, several international outlets (including this one) have been permitted to send journalists for short reporting trips or to cover major government events. For those accredited in Uzbekistan by the Foreign Ministry, certain other ministries and departments require separate accreditation and lock journalists out through the sheer weight of bureaucracy.
Even absent official censorship, journalists in Uzbekistan remain wary of broaching certain subjects. As noted in the recent report, one Uzbek media professional told Human Rights Watch, “you never know where that red line is that you cannot cross, so best to stay far away from it.”
As Imamova commented in her recent interview with Swerdlow, Uzbek journalists have come to see Mirziyoyev as a kind of “shield,” with his public criticisms a signal of sorts that a certain topic is permissible. “Just the way every time he comes up with criticism of some reality in Uzbekistan, it serves as a green light then for local journalists to go after those issues,” she said, noting that some are happy with that system and argue that asking for more is unrealistic.
Swerdlow acknowledged the difficulty, saying “I think it’s a fair point to say that you can’t reverse or do away with 27 years of repression in one year and a half.” But “there are other things that can and should be stopped immediately,” such as unblocking various websites and communications applications. Other immediate steps could include simplifying accreditation procedures across the government, enabling the country’s existing credentialed journalists to do their jobs more effectively.
Part of reversing decades of repression is rewiring how local journalists, in particular, think about and conduct their jobs and simultaneously reforming how the government manages its relationship with the media. As Imamova noted at a workshop hosted by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program in January 2018, “journalists in [Uzbekistan] don’t really have much experience with freedom.”
Otakhonov, the novelist facing extremism charges, put it best in his interview with HRW:
While there are some traces of free speech found in the Uzbek social media world, we need a great deal more of it. To create a new society, we need new thinking. The old guard thinks in the old way. It does not want to make way for the new generation.