Uzbek Authorities Crack Down on Another Foreign NGO in Tashkent
Uzbek officials have ordered the international media organization Internews-Uzbekistan to shut down for six months for allegedly violating registration requirements for non-governmental organizations. The closure is the latest move in a crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs operating in the country.
The September 13 decision by a Tashkent municipal court has been widely denounced by media watchdog groups, who link the decision to the government's desire to stifle dissent during the run-up to the December 26 elections. Among the reasons cited for the shut-down by the Justice Ministry in a July 2004 report was failure to register the organization's logo, current address and the exact number of board members, as well as to notify the government about Internews activities outside of Tashkent. Representatives of Internews-Uzbekistan contend they submitted all necessary documentation in a timely manner, while the Ministry of Justice denies ever receiving them.
"Shutting down Internews-Uzbekistan for such technical violations is a thinly veiled attempt to stifle criticism of the government as elections approach," Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
Internews serves as the main source of support for Uzbekistan's private television stations and has also provided extensive training for television and radio journalists since beginning operations in Uzbekistan in 1995. For the past year, Internews-Uzbekistan has also overseen a US-funded program to track government abuse of the media. The program's latest monthly report, from July 2004, cited 66 instances of abusive treatment of journalists by government officials, and a total of 450 such instances for the year.
One regional analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested Internews' work ran counter to the government's own efforts to control media coverage of the upcoming elections. "The government and Central Elections Committee, as well as various other government agencies and broadcasters' associations, are taking many initiatives of their own to work with media on these elections in order to direct their activities," the analyst said. One Uzbek broadcasters' association, the analyst added, recently forbade non-government media outlets from working with any international organization without first gaining the association's permission.
A US Agency for International Development-funded program that works with journalists to report on drug-related issues would also be affected by the Tashkent court's decision, said Joshua Machleder, the Internews regional manager for Central Asia.
In April 2004, the government shut down the offices of the Open Society Institute (OSI), arguing that OSI-funded educational materials misrepresented the nature of reforms undertaken by President Islam Karimov's administration. (EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of OSI.) [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In January, the Justice Ministry denied re-registration to the London-based, non-profit news service Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
Some observers believe the crackdown on media initiatives in Uzbekistan is connected to the November 2003 revolution in Georgia, where massive public protests led to the resignation of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. Since then, working in Uzbekistan's civil society sector has become "tremendously difficult," said a NGO representative active in Central Asia. Islamic radical-related violence, including late March raids and late July suicide bombings, have served to heighten the Uzbek government's impulse to restrict media coverage.
Internews-Uzbekistan has grappled Uzbek bureaucrats for much of the year. In February, officials issued a banking decree that requires foreign funding for local NGOs to be subjected to official review. As a result, Internews-Uzbekistan's bank account was frozen "without warning and without explanation," according to Machleder. An appeal of the Tashkent court's shut-down order is pending. "Internews has 20 days in which it can appeal the court's decision, and certainly, Internews-Uzbekistan plans to fight this decision," Machleder said.