Launched in late March 2017, Korrespondent.uz is one of a wave of new-type media organizations to pop up in Uzbekistan. Since the 2016 death of longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the country has undergone a period of reform that has included, in some aspects, the media space. As the coronavirus pandemic sparks crises — both health and economic — around the world, reliable news is more important than ever.
The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke recently to Ikhtiyor Rakhman, managing editor and founder of Korrespondent.uz, about how his team is covering COVID-19, what the Uzbek government is doing, and how the mediascape in Uzbekistan has evolved in recent years.
How has your website, Korrespondent.uz, approached covering the coronavirus pandemic?
In our website, a new heading has been created dedicated to world and local news related to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, our website is publishing all information from the different briefings of the special commission provided by government and translating materials related to the subject published in international media. We are working together with the UN representative office in Uzbekistan and country embassies on ways to publish news from around the world.
The Special Commission for the Control of the Coronavirus has various pages on social networks to inform about COVID-19. There are over a million subscribers of the Koronavirusinfouz channel on Telegram. The number of visitors to our pages has also increased. Other leading websites also have more subscribers now than before.
The government has warned bloggers and journalists, as well as users of social media networks that spreading fake and unverified information could incur criminal liabilities. Journalists have to fight fake news every day. Dozens of false reports have been spread since the pandemic began.
What stories do readers seem most interested in?
Currently, our readers are eagerly reading the latest news, numbers provided by officials, and especially negative information. It is necessary to understand the growing reading habits of subscribers during this pandemic. They are showing increased levels of demand for information not only our website, but across the whole media space.
In the past few years, there has been a number of changes in Uzbekistan. How has the media evolved amid those changes?
In fact there have been a lot changes in Uzbekistan lately. Legally guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of thinking are critical parts of a democratic state governed by the rule of law. And this will provide a diversity of views and total participation of citizens in the democratic processes. Today, there are 1,472 mass media organizations working in Uzbekistan. Sixty percent of them are nongovernmental mass media.
Year by year, the processes for licensing and state registration of mass media have been simplified. The rights and liabilities of founders, editors, and journalists are being widened. Under previous legislation, it was impossible to register a mass media organization if one of the founders or publishers resided outside the country. Today this limitation has been removed.
In 2019 the report of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) evaluated the situation in Uzbekistan more positively than before. In an interview, a representative of the Committee named 2019 in Uzbekistan as the year of the bloggers. Blogging has started to emerge as a popular activity. It has positive aspects, as blogging is closely linked to the freedom of speech and the press. However, we have seen some misunderstanding of the true concept of blogging and difficulties between journalists and bloggers and officials. For example, last year we saw some instances in which officials verbally abused journalists in meetings.
In 2019, Harlem Desir, the representative of OSCE on issues of mass media freedom, gave an official address about the limited opportunities for foreign mass media to enter Uzbekistan. He also raised the issue of blocked foreign websites — afterwards a number of websites were unblocked.
Uzbekistan has moved a big step forward with regard to the freedom of speech. To cite two serious examples, until recently in Uzbekistan, people considered it impossible to speak about torture openly. They thought that it was dangerous to speak about corruption. But these topics are being discussed openly today.
In viewing the Uzbek media more broadly, are there areas that still need improvement? What challenges remain?
The legislation regarding mass media needs to be enhanced and the government needs protocols for dealing with the media. In practical terms, it takes a long time for organizations to respond to media queries. There is not any responsibility for government organizations to provide the requested information. An open information environment has not been created. Also, there are still some topics that remain off-limits.
Moreover, the unjustified closure of the some nongovernmental mass media has been observed, as in the cases of Turon24 and Togri.uz. Up to this time, government support for mass media was so passive. To be more specific, there were not any real organizations to support journalism and to protect journalists. Recently, a public fund aimed to support and develop the national mass media has been organized. Journalists have great expectations for this organization.
Currently, the number of grants allocated for mass media is low and what is allocated is for small sums. In problematic situations or when a journalist is subject to court proceedings, nobody fights for the journalist’s protection. There are only a few lawyers who know much about journalism and the law in this area. Furthermore, the transition of traditional mass media to the culture and ways of the internet has been passive at best, as has adoption of modern journalistic standards. Some press services do not know their actual journalistic duties. This, in turn, is a disservice obvious in Uzbekistan and outside.
On coronavirus, the Uzbek government has been broadly applauded for its actions. How do Uzbeks feel about the government’s pandemic response?
I can say that the Uzbek people are supportive of the government’s measure against COVID-19. This can be seen from the empty streets. I saw a lot of positive comments online. The authorities are doing their best to keep the virus in quarantine zones and prevent wider community spread.
Nevertheless, some people have a disrespectful attitude toward the government’s measures against the pandemic. To deal with them, some fines have been introduced. However, there a lot of generous people who appear to be following the restrictions established in the interest of public health.