Media regulators in Uzbekistan have decided that the public may after all use Twitter, along with WeChat and Vkontakte.
On August 1, the Information and Mass Media Agency said that in addition to lifting the block on those resources, it is also in talks TikTok to give it the same treatment.
The move to make a host of social media sites unavailable to users in Uzbekistan dates back to July 2021. Telecoms regulators decreed at the time that applications and websites like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Mail.ru, Skype, Telegram, WeChat and TikTok were in violation of recently adopted rules on the protection of personal data. In order to come into compliance, the companies owning those services were required to host servers inside Uzbekistan.
Application of this provision has been selective, though. So when services like Telegram, Facebook, Odnoklassniki and YouTube were found in November to be in violation and made unavailable to local internet users, the outcry was so loud that the authorities had to back down within hours.
Shortly afterward, the Information and Communications Technology Minister, the head of the telecoms regulator, and an IT advisor to the prime minister all resigned.
A spokesman for President Shavkat Mirziyoyev described the November blocks as “unilateral and ill-considered.” At the same time, many other sites, Twitter most notably, remained unavailable.
The question that is being asked is: Why this change of heart?
Some local commentators have linked the decision to personnel changes in the presidential administration. In mid-July, Sardor Umurzakov was named Mirziyoyev’s chief of staff, replacing long-time loyalist Zainilobiddin Nizomiddinov.
What is also unclear is whether the Uzbek government has backed down in its demand for international telecommunications companies to place their servers in-country.
Press freedoms in Uzbekistan have seen some improvements since the deeply repressive times of the late President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016. Limitations persist nevertheless. Sensitive issues still remain largely out-of-bounds for established media, although the lively community of citizen journalists relying on platforms like Telegram means there is a vibrant ecosystem of information. Even so, there are at present almost a dozen citizen journalists behind bars on various charges.
In their latest annual Freedom of the Net country survey on Uzbekistan published last year, Freedom House argued that the authorities were using the server question as a cover for continuing to enforce restrictions on self-expression.
“Authorities have not loosened their grip over the online environment. The government continues to block websites and arrest critics, handing out three multiyear prison sentences during the coverage period,” Freedom House found.