A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
Dina Baidildayeva's one-woman show of support for other bloggers got her arrested.
Kazakhstan has never been a bastion of press freedom, but the arrests of four Almaty bloggers in the past week have put Internet commentators in the country’s cultural capital on high alert.
In the latest case Dina Baidildayeva was detained by police on February 8 after staging a one-woman show of solidarity with three jailed bloggers, who were imprisoned on February 5 on hooliganism charges that they denied.
Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibrayev, and Dmitriy Shelokov each received a 10-day prison sentence after protesting outside a restaurant where the mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, was lunching with selected bloggers. The protesters, who had not been invited, accused the mayor of only wanting to hold a dialogue with “tame” bloggers.
In response, Baidildayeva, who is a blogger and also a social networks editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, took to Republic Square opposite Almaty city hall waving a poster reading: “Freedom to bloggers – Shame on Yesimov.”
“Mr Yesimov, resign! Freedom to bloggers who were jailed just because they wanted to ask questions to Mayor Yesimov, because they are not satisfied with his work!” she said. “He only gathered bloggers that he liked and who were loyal to him, and that’s not what an intelligent government does!”
Police watched the five-minute protest before moving in to detain Baidildayeva at the scene after she had finished speaking and packed away her poster. She complained that they did not specify what crime she had committed.
Umida Akhmedova -- with one of her "offensive" photos of life in her native Uzbekistan -- at the Moscow Biennale in September.
UPDATE, January 30: EurasiaNet.org has spoken with Timur Karpov. He was released this evening after a Tashkent court fined him and three others up to approximately $900 for participating in the unsanctioned rally. Of the eight detained January 29, three –including cultural critic Alex Ulko – have received 15-day sentences; one, Gulsum Osmanova, remains unaccounted for. It's possible she has been released or is still being held.
The whereabouts of at least six activists who had held a small rally to express support for Ukrainian protestors remain unknown after they were apparently detained by police January 29.
The six – prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova and her photojournalist son Timur Karpov, cultural affairs commentator Alex Ulko and three others – were detained two days after they picketed the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent in support of pro-democracy protestors, Fergana News reported. Fergana News believes the activists are being held in Tashkent's Khamza District police department, where an officer told Akhmedova's daughter late on January 29 that the group had already been released.
Akhmedova's husband Oleg Karpov fears the detainees, who appear to have not had access to a lawyer, may face "repressive measures" (such as torture, which is “systematic” in the justice system, according to Human Rights Watch). Activists throughout the region and further afield have called on Uzbek authorities to immediately release the group.
Participants at an annual gathering of Kazakhstan’s journalist community have called for authorities to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the media.
Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov took the floor after a panel discussion in Almaty on November 27 to demand an end to what he described as de facto “censorship” and for dissident voices to be given access to the mainstream media. Kazakhstan’s opposition has long been marginalized from the media, and the situation has deteriorated since the courts last year closed down dozens of independent media outlets in the wake of late 2011's fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan.
The panel discussion at the sixth Media Kuryltay (“council” or “assembly”) pitted a government official against a prominent journalist who survived an assassination attempt that many observers suspect was linked to his outspoken reporting. The kuryltay offers a rare opportunity for an exchange of opinions between journalists reflecting all sides of Kazakhstan’s media spectrum – from strongly pro-government to staunch opposition – and bureaucrats from Astana.
Bolat Kalyanbekov, chairman of the Ministry of Culture’s Information and Archive Committee, offered a spirited defense of state media policy, pointing out that the government channels millions of tenge to the media every year. Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the regional Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in northwestern Kazakhstan, who was lucky to survive a vicious attempt on his life last year, pointed out that the state might be throwing money at loyal elements of the media but this did not bring about greater media freedom.
Critical websites that have been blocked in Uzbekistan for years reportedly became accessible within the country in recent weeks. But sources tell EurasiaNet.org they are blocked again.
On October 27, Moscow-based Fergana News reported that from October 17 users in Namangan, Tashkent and Fergana could "freely access" Fergananews.com and other sites that frequently carry material critical of the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov.
Sources in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org on October 28, however, that the sites, including EurasiaNet.org, are again blocked. (They can be accessed using proxy servers.) Uzmetronom also reports that the sites are again inaccessible from within Uzbekistan.
State media regularly warns about the supposedly harmful effects foreign media, culture, and social-networking websites have on young people, especially since the Arab Spring saw similar dictatorships toppled in the Middle East. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranksUzbekistan an "Enemy of the Internet."
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
An independent journalist missing for three days in Uzbekistan has been jailed on what human rights activists are calling politically motivated charges.
Sergei Naumov disappeared in the western city of Urgench on September 21 after telling friends he had been having trouble with local police. Given Uzbekistan’s record of forcibly silencing critics, and Naumov’s reporting on the use of forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, his friends feared the worst.
Nadejda Atayeva, France-based leader of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, wrote on her blog on September 24 that Naumov had been located in a detention center in Urgench after the city court found him guilty of "petty hooliganism" and sentenced him to 12 days after a remarkably speedy trial on September 21.
Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Uzbek human rights activists expressed alarm about Naumov’s disappearance. “The brutal practice of ‘disappearing’ government critics is a terrible blight on Uzbekistan’s already abysmal human rights record,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 24 statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Tashkent to “scrap the fabricated charges."
Human Rights Watch has called on authorities in Kazakhstan to investigate "swiftly and effectively" an attack on a critical journalist in the western city of Aktobe.
Igor Larra, a correspondent with the Svoboda Slova newspaper, suffered a head injury and bruises on his body when four unidentified men attacked him with a crowbar on August 20, the Almaty-based Adil Soz foundation for the protection of freedom of speech said on August 21.
The journalist linked the attack to a number of critical articles he has written about the governor of Aktobe Region, Arkhimed Mukhambetov, Adil Soz said.
Adil Soz says Larra was also attacked in March 2010 for what it believes was his coverage of an oil workers' strike in the town of Zhanaozen and other problems in Kazakhstan's oil and gas sector.
“A critical journalist who has been attacked before has been hit over the head with a crowbar,” said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This follows a pattern in Kazakhstan. The authorities need to get to the bottom of what happened to Igor Larra, including whether it was related to his work.”
A website that many Central Asia watchers have long believed airs leaks from Uzbekistan’s security services is taking a break after Uzbek authorities criticized its coverage of a border skirmish this week.
On July 25, Sergey Yezhkov, editor of Uzmetronom.com, said he would suspend the website indefinitely. Though Uzbekistan is one of the world’s worst countries for journalists, he expressed surprise that authorities would silence those who “utter any word which is out of tune with official propaganda.”
“We don’t understand whether it is a short-term hysteria caused by some momentary undercurrents, or a long-term program with full consequences,” Yezhkov wrote in an editorial. He also denied that the website – which proudly brands itself “blocked in Uzbekistan,” yet has operated from there since 2006 – is “close to the Uzbek security services.”
He tried to explain away this widespread belief: “[W]e did not even try to argue, although we never were ‘close.’ At least, we were not closer than others [...] unfiltered information coming from within the country is always preferable to what is produced outside.”
Moscow-based Fergana News said that Uzmetronom came under fire after publishing a report on a July 23 skirmish on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border that left two dead. Uzmetronom received a letter on July 24 from the Military Prosecutor’s Office warning against covering the clash “without receiving accurate information on this incident from relevant bodies,” Fergana News quoted the letter as saying. The letter added that such reporting could destabilize the situation on the border.
It’s been another bad week for critics of Tajikistan’s long-serving strongman, Emomali Rahmon.
On July 18, police announced they had found a body appearing to be that of Salim Shamsiddinov, the missing leader of the Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, downstream in Uzbekistan. Shamsiddinov, 58, vanished without a trace during a regular morning run in his hometown of Qurghonteppa on March 16. A consistent critic of Dushanbe’s policies towards its one-million-plus Uzbek community, many, including Amnesty International, suspected his disappearance was related to his political activities. Shamsiddinov had previously been beaten outside the local offices of the security services, the GKNB, in broad daylight. From our March story:
One prominent analyst in Dushanbe sees two possibilities behind Shamsiddinov’s disappearance. On the one hand, he says the GKNB – which regularly faces allegations of intimidation, kidnappings, torture and extra-judicial executions – is a likely culprit. The GKNB, this popular theory goes, wanted to silence Shamsiddinov because he had been cavorting with one of Rakhmon’s political rivals ahead of presidential elections scheduled for November.
The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of provoking the powerful GKNB, also points out, however, that Shamsiddinov had problems within the Society of Uzbeks, especially since his Millat interview, and his disappearance could be related to power struggles within the organization.