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A New Era for Press Freedom in a Changing Uzbekistan?
Image Credit: guz_007 via Flickr

A New Era for Press Freedom in a Changing Uzbekistan?

 
 

In the past two years, Uzbekistan’s media, for the first time in its modern history, has been critically self-reflecting on its past rosy narratives, skeptically evaluating the country’s present, and analyzing current policies toward the country’s future. It took one person to unravel this shake-up: President Shavkat Mirziyoyev himself. The president took up pummeling his executive branch on their performance in a room full of people, cameras, and journalists as soon as he came to office.

The president’s honest criticisms of public servants encouraged the population, including journalists, to voice skepticism of their own about the government’s performance. Journalists felt buoyant in taking up the issues the president was concerned with and approaching wider topics with deeper analysis. This new era did not bring in the explosion of news websites let alone print media; instead, the media environment exploded with a new class of writers and bloggers.

The civic engagement energy reached individuals unaffiliated with media outlets too, many of whom have a growing number of loyal readers. The government played no role in this new trend; instead it has done what it should have – resisted from stamping down blogging activities. Nevertheless, the government was not oblivious to the phenomenon.

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For the first time in the country’s history Uzbek bloggers were acknowledged by presidential decree. On the Day of Journalism celebrated in Uzbekistan on June 27, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov presided over a ceremony that recognized two bloggers, Khushnudbek Khudayberdiev (@xushnudbek) and Kobil Khidirov (@davletov) among other traditional media representatives. The bloggers use Telegram, a messaging app developed in Russia, to post their communications. As of July 6, @xushnudbek had around 117,000 followers and @davletov had close to 35,000 followers. Both their readerships inches up every day.

Both bloggers expeditiously reacted to the events inside the country in the Uzbek language with their candid opinions. Their simple prose and unobstructed language attracts readers. The commonality between the two bloggers is that both promote a rules-based society relaying and deconstructing as many government regulations as they can that affect the lives of their countrymen. In response, followers appreciate the expedient reaction to events, engage in two-way communication with the bloggers, participate in polls, bring other readers to their sites, or even get inspired to blog themselves.

Following the award ceremony @xushnudbek reflected on reasons why he and @davletov caught the attention of the president. @xushnudbek described their blogging activities as “trouble makers, government’s most active critics, and inciters of the populace.” Despite these declarations, @xushnudbek believes the government’s recognition means a new phase for the freedom of speech in Uzbekistan. “The government award was given not to shut our mouth, instead encourage the rest of the population to speak their minds freely.”

Relations between the government and bloggers are not devoid of issues. The government is not equally open to bloggers on religious issues, especially those who want greater freedom to practice Islam. The government has not decided on the type of society it wants build in Uzbekistan and the limitations it needs to set to practice Islam. Tashkent, therefore, is still grappling with the level of religious discussion it can tolerate in the open media.

Uzbekistan’s media was reborn following the new administration and its transformation is still ongoing. The quality of reporting has improved from what it was earlier and journalists are testing out new topics every day. Bloggers, an emerging type of journalism in the country, have found mediums to channel their voice unfiltered without an editorial stamp.

Ruined educations and economic hardships in Uzbekistan following its independence produced a “lost generation” who are at their peak of productivity now. Blogging is in some way compensating for that lost knowledge and confidence by breaking up ongoing events in the country into easily consumable bites. Blogging is also vicariously contributing to the formation of civil society by raising awareness of regulations and their effect on daily lives.

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