In February of this year, days after plain-clothed police officers in the southern Uzbek city of Termez detained Otabek Sattoriy, a blogger who often covered local corruption on his Telegram and YouTube channels, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told a group of journalists, “You are my comrades-in-arms, I count on your help… I want to ask you one thing: do not be lazy in your striving for answers.”
Three months later, Sattoriy has been convinced on extortion and libel charges and given a sentence of 6.5 years. The prosecutor had asked for 11 years. On social media, Uzbek and international journalists and bloggers decried the conclusion of Sattoriy’s trial.
Navbahor Imamova of Voice of America’s Uzbek Service commented on Twitter ahead of the sentencing that the Uzbek system is was “using this case to warn critical voices, to silence them. Have your freedom of expression, but there is a cage waiting for you.” She noted that the case represented Uzbekistan’s gains when it comes to media freedoms, pointing out that journalists were allowed in the court and served as witnesses. “But imprisoning a blogger for quarrel in local bazaar for 11 years will wash away all gains.”
The accusations against Sattoriy were that he blackmailed and slandered several subjects of his reporting. The bazaar incident Imamova referenced included the accusation by the authorities that Sattoriy told the head of a market in Sherabad district that he would publish information about the market’s shortcomings, such as inflated prices, if he did not get the blogger a new phone.
In Sattoriy’s version of the events, he went to report on high prices at the market when unidentified men interfered with his filming and broke his phone. The head of the bazaar then, according to both Sattoriy and another journalist who witnessed the incident, said he would replace the blogger’s damaged phone. The day the market head delivered the new phone, Sattoriy was detained.
Sattoriy’s lawyer, Umidbek Davlatov, called the 6.5-year sentence “absolutely unjust.” That sentiment was echoed by numerous human rights advocates. Mihra Ritmann, Human Rights Watch’s senior Central Asia researcher, tweeted that it was “blow to freedom of speech” in Uzbekistan. Steve Swerdlow, an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California, commented in a tweet, “With the sentencing of blogger #OtabekSattoriy to 6.5 years imprisonment today on dubious charges #Uzbekistan has resumed a notorious place among the list of countries who jail critical journalists & attack free speech—rubicon many rooting for change pleaded w/ govt not to cross.”
Sattoriy is one of a legion of “bloggers” – a catch-all term for citizen journalists. As Eurasianet noted, bloggers cover a huge range of topics:
Where some use whatever heft they possess to complain about potholes or bureaucratic ineptitude among local officials – at times blurring the distinction between reported fact and gossip in the process – others have seized on the relative openness the country has enjoyed since 2016, when the late dictator Islam Karimov died, to direct their attention on perceived graft.
Uzbekistan’s bloggers are usually independent, meaning they do not belong to a traditional media organization, and often use social media platforms, such as Telegram, YouTube, and Facebook, in place of classic website-hosted blogs (though some do, of course). The rise of Uzbekistan’s bloggers is, in part, tied to the opening up of the Uzbek state after the death of Islam Karimov, though some were active before 2016. The state has clearly struggled with figuring out how to control the crowd and new technologies. It’s not as simple as shutting down a printing press, or cutting off a website.
It will be important to watch how Sattoriy’s conviction and sentence are discussed (or ignored) in Tashkent. Actions speak louder than words. On the one hand, Mirziyoyev has called bloggers “comrades,” but on the other, not only are regional courts are sentencing the same to long prison terms but those such as Miraziz Bazarov, who promote culturally sensitive subjects, have been subject to attack in addition to facing charges.