Bloggers in the Crosshairs: The Complex Reality of Media Freedom in Uzbekistan

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Bloggers in the Crosshairs: The Complex Reality of Media Freedom in Uzbekistan

Despite presidential promises, arrests of bloggers critical of the government highlight the fragility of free speech in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan.

Bloggers in the Crosshairs: The Complex Reality of Media Freedom in Uzbekistan
Credit: Catherine Putz

Uzbekistan’s annual celebration marking Press and Media Workers’ Day on June 27 is accompanied by a longstanding tradition of a presidential address. In recent years, this annual address has evolved to include recognition of bloggers alongside traditional journalists, highlighting the growing importance of the former in the country’s discourse.

 “Our caring and noble journalists, active bloggers make a worthy contribution to solving acute problems in our lives, increasing the effectiveness of our reforms, raising the opinion and worldview of our compatriots with their firm position and honest words,” read President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s latest address, published on June 26.

The Uzbek president, actively cultivating a reformer image, frequently promises freedom of speech, particularly for mass media representatives. In reality, however, bloggers often face repercussions for expressing opinions critical of the government. 

Just three weeks before Mirziyoev’s most recent Press and Media Workers’ Day address, in a closed court proceeding, 42-year-old blogger Murod Makhsudov was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison on charges of defamation, extortion, and embezzlement. Makhmudov, who denied the charges, was also an activist with “Ezgulik” Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He chaired the society’s Tashkent region branch in 2020-2023 and frequently posted about human rights and corruption issues in the country.

Earlier this year, businessman and blogger Abdulhakim Abjalilov, a 49-year-old from Qashqadaryo, was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to five years. He ran a Telegram channel, “Achchiq Haqiqat” (Bitter Truth).

The internet has taken Uzbekistan by storm, with the number of users soaring from 7.5 million in 2000 to 31 million by 2022. Although the majority of people use the internet via mobile phones (29.5 million), the number of social media users is relatively small — slightly over 5 million as of 2023. Despite this, blogging has become popular. 

In the early 2000, blogs were primarily text-focused, as not everyone could afford the data packages needed to watch videos. These blogs were often personal, focusing on topics like trips to foreign countries and student life. As internet access expanded and became more affordable, bloggers began to emerge as influencers. Yet journalism and blogging predominantly focused on entertainment-related content, natural disasters across the globe, and positive developments in the country. Any content perceived as a threat to national security faced repression through censorship and threats to journalists. News about the Arab Spring, for example, which shared context with Uzbekistan – large numbers of educated unemployed, scorching rates of poverty, repressive authoritarian governments – was mostly accessible only via Russian TV channels.  Websites that published critical news, such as Uznews.net, Ferghana.ru, and Neweurasia.net were operating from abroad and could be accessed only by using virtual proxy networks (VPNs). 

The succession of Uzbekistan’s presidency from Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with an iron fist, to his long-time prime minister, Mirziyoyev, brought about significant changes, including a slight improvement in freedom of speech and media. Karimov, who labeled himself as the “father” of the nation, justified his suppression of the freedom of expression as a necessary sacrifice to maintain peace and stability during the turbulent transition from Soviet colonization to independence, which led to the country’s near-total isolation. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 163rd out of 178 countries.

Mirziyoyev, who could not assume the same paternalistic role as his predecessor, decided to cast himself as a reformer. Most of his reforms focused on eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, opening the country for business and trade, releasing former political and religious prisoners, and abolishing forced labor. However, what truly earned him the title of a reformer was his promise to support freedom of speech.

Recognizing the value that bloggers bring, Mirziyoyev began to mention them alongside journalists, promising them protection early in his presidency and consistently reiterating this position in the years that followed. In 2019, loosening the government’s tight grip over the internet, Tashkent unblocked many previously restricted news websites such as RFE/RL’s Uzbek service Ozodlik, Current Time TV, Deutsche Welle, and Amnesty International.

At one point, Mirziyoyev even demanded that city hakims report to bloggers on developments in order to allow bloggers to relay information to the public. His selfie with bloggers at a music festival in Samarkand in 2019 was dubbed “historic” by local media. “The president always supports you,” Mirziyoyev reiterated to journalists and bloggers. These presidential promises encouraged many bloggers to take up a variety of socio-cultural and political issues on their platforms, and blogging has turned into a prestigious job. 

Moved by Mirziyoyev’s modest reforms, Uzbekistan was named the Country of the Year by The Economist in 2019.

The government, however, has not rushed to institutionalize the blogosphere. In 2014, Article 3 of the 2003 law “On Informatization” was amended to include a legal definition of a blogger as “a natural person who places information of a socio-political, socio-economic, and other nature on their website and (or) a page of a website in the global information network of the Internet, including the discussion of this information by users of the information.” Their activity is still not regulated by specific legislation or overseen by an institution. Established in 2019, the Information and Mass Communications Agency under the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Uzbekistan, for example, is a body that registers electronic mass media and regulates their activities. But the agency has never regulated the activities of bloggers. 

The lack of systematic regulation of bloggers despite acknowledging their value allows the government to avoid defining their rights. As long as the blogosphere remains a “gray area,” the government has wide latitude in punishing those who cross the line.

Abduqodir Muminov used to run a popular YouTube channel, Ko’zgu (Mirror), often criticizing local governors, growing corruption, and even the president’s sons-in-law. He was attacked by five unknown men in his car in 2022. In February 2023, he was arrested on charges of fraud and extortion and was given 7 years and 3 months of prison time. He was banned from journalistic and blogging activity for three years.

Another blogger, Olimjon Khaydarov, was sentenced to eight years on charges of defamation, abuse, and extortion in December 2023 after being accused of demanding $10,000 from the managers of a shopping complex in exchange for not distributing a negative article on the internet. Khaydarov was famous for his critical posts about local officials. His brother, in an interview with Kun.uz, alleged that Khaydarov was framed by law enforcement. The same month blogger and social media activist Lemara Mirzaahmedova (known as Emine Karamanova) received a 7.5 year sentence on charges of defamation, insult, and extortion.

Otabek Akhliddinov, a 50-year-old blogger and a father of six was found guilty of extortion and embezzlement and was sentenced to 7 years and 1 month in September 2023. That same month, Shabnam (Nafosat) Ollashukurova was sentenced to 3 years on charges of defamation and insult and was barred from leaving Khorezm region or using the internet. 

The 2021 amendments to Uzbekistan’s criminal code widened the list of taboo topics not only for bloggers and journalists, but for ordinary citizens as well. Among others, the amendments criminalized online slander or insult of the president or his family members. The scope of slanderous online content extended from traditional press and media content to any online content, such as a blog or social media post, or even comments in any form such as text, photo, audio, or video that the law enforcement would deem an insult. 

A 52-year-old blogger from Jizzakh was arrested in 2021 for video-comments he uploaded on YouTube and Facebook, which the police found misrepresented Mirziyoyev’s reforms and insulted the president, “discrediting the head of state and spreading derogatory information.” He later was found mentally ill and was forcibly sent to a clinic. 

The Diplomat reported at least 15 similar publicly known cases in the last few years. 

In May 2024, a 28-year-old internet user was sentenced to 2.5 years of correctional work for leaving comments under Instagram video posts that featured Mirziyoyev. He “promoted his ideas to create separatism in the minds of the youth by blaming the government when he is not achieving anything due to his own fault,” read the court document. 

Self-censorship is high among Uzbek journalists and bloggers. Taboo topics include corruption allegations related to the president and his family, the prime minister, the governors of Tashkent and other regions and their families, and any religious content that does not fit into the version of Islam that Tashkent approves.

The Diplomat reported that over the past year the number of arrests related to posting Islamic content on social media, even via the Telegram messenger app, has dramatically increased, comparing the trend to the Karimov era. Many victims of arrests over religious content are young men. In January 2023, a 21-year-old, Sardor Rahmankulov, was given five years imprisonment for sending a nasheed (an Islamic song) to a friend via Telegram back in 2020. Another 21-year-old student, Jahongir Ulughmurodov, received three years imprisonment for sharing a link to a nasheed in a Telegram group chat for his classmates. 

The imprisonment of Fozilkhoja Orifkhodjayev, a religious blogger who often criticized religious restrictions, pro-government journalists, and even government-appointed imams, became a heated point of discussion both among netizens of Uzbekistan as well as local and international rights defenders and media. Although Orifkhodjayev was sentenced to 7.5 years in 2021, he was “conditionally” released two years later.

In  May, Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan at 148th place in its press freedom rating — 11 places down from the 2023 ranking. “Following the 2016 death of President Islam Karimov, circumstances have only barely improved for the media, and criticizing those in power remains very complicated,” said the report. 

To Mirziyoyev, bloggers are good as long as they promote a positive image of the country to attract more tourists and improve the new government’s perception by the people and the world. When he said “all journalists and bloggers working within the legal system will continue to be under the protection of the law and the President,” he only meant those who do not challenge him or his loyal friends’ authority.

At the end of the day, it is his government that sets legislation and his officials who implement the law. Mirziyoyev already reset his term count last year and stretched the presidential term from five to seven years, effectively securing the presidency until 2037. So, arresting more journalists and bloggers who challenge the elite will not cost him anything tangible — except perhaps his image as a reformer.