Last week, the editors of Uzbekistan’s Kun.uz news website received a warning letter from the government’s Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMK) in relation to their coverage of public sentiments regarding the gas and electricity problems that routinely plague Uzbek citizens as winter settles in the region.
The AIMK letter, signed by the organization’s director, Asadjon Khodjayev, took offense at the article, stating that it covered problems regarding electricity and natural gas supplies “one-sidedly” and “under the influence of emotions.”
With the onset of fall and winter, bringing dropping temperatures and increased demand for heating – via electricity or natural gas – Uzbekistan’s energy system is stressed. In December 2019, for example, shortages and shutoffs of electricity and gas supplies led to rare public protests. In late October, the Uzbek government reportedly decided to cut supplies to some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in order to direct limited resources to facilities deemed critical, such as apartment buildings and schools.
According to RFE/RL’s reporting, “In the last 15 years, Central Asia’s most populous nation of 32 million people has faced acute natural-gas shortages during winters, when the consumption of that type of energy usually increases. The situation is especially dramatic in remote towns and villages.”
In light of this annual occurrence, Kun.uz catalogued what people had to say about this “eternal and painful topic” on social media. The post includes comments and poems, some depressing, some scathing. It’s not an unusual article style: a simple vox pop of what people have said on the internet about an important topic.
AIMK is a relatively recently creation, formed in February 2019 to replace a similar previous body. For several months, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev served as deputy in the agency. As Umida Hashimov outlined last year:
AIMK “functions under the presidential administration and combines various roles of a state media policy body, regulatory body, and a media ombudsman. Its functions include a broad array of tasks, such as the development of a unified state policy on information and providing state support to the media, press, publishing services, as well as libraries; issuing media licenses and monitoring media activities; ensuring media freedom and protecting the rights of journalists.”
That last bit appears to stand in sharp contrast to the letter sent by AIMK to Kun.uz.
The letter criticized Kun.uz for not dwelling on the details of why natural gas production may have declined in Uzbekistan or what steps the government had taken to address the situation. The letter warned that the news site’s coverage “may lead to the emergence of a negative impression among the population about the actions of the government.”
AIMK has it backwards: Kun.uz printing the negative things real people have said about the government’s handling of the winter energy situation is a reflection of already existing negative impressions regarding the government’s actions (or inactions). The press didn’t create the problem.
Kun.uz notes in its response that the offending article was not about the government, it was about what people thought about the situation. The media outlet points out that it has covered other relevant energy-related topics in other articles consistently.
“One of the main tasks of the media is to publicize the problems of the population,” Kun.uz argues, noting that the article was written after the problem of gas and electricity was raised recently by Senate Chairman Abdulla Aripov.
The Kun.uz editors viewed the AIMK letter as an effort to exert pressure on the media. A number of diplomats agreed. On Twitter, the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Daniel Rosenblum, and the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Tim Torlot, both expressed their concern about the turn of events.
In their post addressing the letter, Kun.uz said it “gave off an air of the ‘old’ Uzbekistan.”
While that is certainly a valid observation, the situation also exposes the reality of the “new” Uzbekistan. As of November 30, the Kun.uz response as well as the original article remained available online. While the threat of legal action was leveled in AIMK’s letter, it’s unclear what measures will be taken against the outlet.
It’s obvious that resistance remains in the government to change, specifically change in the relationship between the state and the press. It’s not so easy a relationship to alter. By its very nature, the press is an irritant to governments – always asking questions, highlighting problems, nagging, nagging, nagging. But it’s a necessity to a free society and it can be an asset to a wise government. Uzbek journalists are bravely finding the path forward in highlighting the problems people face, despite the pressures from above.