Uzbekistan and the red lines of free speech: A citizen journalist goes on trial
As the country opens up, citizen journalism is flourishing. In a place unaccustomed to journalists, and with the ethics of the profession not yet cemented, theirs is a risky business.
Otabek Sattoriy crossed a line. That much is plain.
Something that the 41-year-old self-styled citizen journalist and blight of local officials in Uzbekistan’s southern region of Surkhandaryo did was enough to land him in jail.
Sattoriy’s family say it was his unflinching reporting on local problems.
“He brings social shortcomings to public attention,” his father, Abdumannon, told Eurasianet in an interview at the family home in Termez, capital of Surkhandaryo.
Prosecutors say Sattoriy, who was arrested outside his house on January 30, is a fraudster and a blackmailer. That he was exploiting his activist journalism to pump officials and businesses for cash.
On March 11, Surkhandaryo regional court is due to begin considering which version is true. Given how criminal trials tend to play out in Uzbekistan, Sattoriy’s prospects are not good.
Another – more complicated – question is unlikely to be resolved in court.
The putatively reform-minded president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has explicitly encouraged anybody with a social media account to criticize those ruling over them. Many have taken up the challenge, often with obstreperous zeal, dubbing themselves “bloggers.”
But one person’s truth-teller is another person’s troublemaker. Those viewed as overreaching, in either the tone of their commentary or the nature of their allegations, still risk sanctions or threats. And the criminal code remains the authorities’ tool of choice in reminding the public about what they are permitted to say.
Ahead of Sattoriy’s trial, it has not been easy to understand what precise offense he is supposed to have committed.
Uzbek officials are far more open to the press and their queries than they were in the days of Mirziyoyev’s tyrannical predecessor, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016. In criminal investigations, though, the culture of obfuscation has persisted.
All that is known for certain about the charges levied against the citizen journalist are the scant crumbs offered by police and prosecutors. Nearly two weeks after Sattoriy’s arrest, police warned social media users to refrain from speculating on the case, hinting darkly that disobedience could trigger prosecutions.
But investigators were not able to cover their tracks altogether. There is Sattoriy’s work as a fitter of close-circuit surveillance systems to thank for that.
A camera affixed to a tree outside the home in which he lives with his parents, wife and two small children captured the scene that unfolded about half an hour before sunset on January 30.
In the footage, Sattoriy is seen emerging from a white sedan with a plastic bag under his left arm and saying some final words to the driver before taking the few steps to his front gate. The contents of that bag are at the heart of the state’s case. Before Sattoriy can reach the door, his way is barred by a plainclothes officer on foot. Another two cars then pull up behind him, disgorging more men. After three minutes, the whole operation is completed and Sattoriy is driven away.
Later that same night, an even larger group of plainclothes men arrived. After one read a warrant issued by the prosecutor’s office, they all piled into the home.
Abdumannon Sattoriy said they stayed for three hours and turned the house upside down.
“They confiscated two computers, two flash drives that were lying on his desk, and all his papers,” he said. “They even took away a tablet the children use to watch cartoons and five jackets.”
Most of what the Interior Ministry has had to say on this case was included in a press release posted on February 1, two days after the arrest. The statement claims that a man called Lochin Turayev, the director of a privately owned bazaar in the city of Sherobod, about one hour’s drive from Termez, on January 29 complained to the police that he was being blackmailed by Sattoriy. The alleged price for bowing to Sattoriy’s demands was a new Vivo X50 mobile phone worth around $500.
Eurasianet submitted a written query to the Interior Ministry’s regional headquarters in Termez for clarification as to how a relatively paltry offense occasioned such a disproportionate response.
By all appearances, dozens of officers were deployed to arrest Sattoriy and then search his home. Sattoriy has been in jail and denied the right to see his family for more than five weeks.
Eurasianet’s request was ignored. An in-person visit to the Interior Ministry’s regional headquarters yielded an initial pledge that an investigator would be made available to answer questions, but this offer was later retracted.
Sherobod farmer’s bazaar, which lies slap on the town’s main thoroughfare, is standard fare.
Porters pushing carts barge through tight spaces, somehow narrowly missing shoppers. The entrance is dominated by household wares. Most of the vegetable, fruit, meat and pickled-goods sellers ply their trade under the covered section, which is in turn lined with shops selling much the same items.
The spacious indoor bazaar café surges with custom at midday and then mostly empties after that. Smoke from a shashlik stand wafts over the huddle formed around a crude six-number roulette-style game that may or may not be a scam.
Lochin Turayev, the man whose complaint landed Sattoriy in jail, runs the covered section, which is separated from the government-owned part by an invisible line. It was people like him that were the objects of President Mirziyoyev’s populist exhortations in December to ensure that prices for food were kept affordable in advance of the holiday season.
“Considering the growing demand ahead of the New Year, it has been noted that it is important to saturate the market with food, to organize fairs at farmer’s bazaars and at major shopping complexes,” the presidential website stated, summarizing a December 16 government meeting presided over by Mirziyoyev.
These edicts typically come with a tinge of menace. Crafty speculators defying instructions to keep prices low know they do so at their own risk. Uzbek citizen reporters – the bloggers – live for the chance to expose such opportunists.
That is what Sattoriy, together with fellow Termez blogger Farhod Ismailov, was doing on December 18, according to his family.
“They went to Sherobod market to capture on video how the fair was being organized for the people,” Abdumannon Sattoriy told Eurasianet. “When they began to film, two or three bazaar overseers accosted [Sattoriy] and asked why he was filming.”
Sattoriy’s father says, citing his son’s account, that a physical altercation then ensued. The phone and selfie stick that Sattoriy was using to film was knocked out of his hand by bazaar security guards, damaging both in the process, he said. Some of Sattoriy’s clothes were ripped during the struggle, Abdumannon Sattoriy said.
Sattoriy’s defense will be that he was not taking receipt of a new phone through extortion when he was detained. He was just receiving a replacement for the one that was broken.
Some bazaar traders interviewed by Eurasianet offered different accounts.
One of them, Lola Samadova, said that she herself protested when Sattoriy began to film her stall.
“I told him not to do it because my husband wouldn’t like it,” she told Eurasianet.
Samadova says it was she that summoned the overseers to force Sattoriy to stop filming. She denied there had been any use of physical violence. Even as she was telling her story, though, beefy bazaar guards sidled up to glare and listen intently.
Another trader who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity scoffed at Samadova’s version of events, saying that she was only parroting the management’s line because she had a coveted spot in the bazaar.
Turayev, the bazaar director, declined to meet with Eurasianet, saying he was forbidden from speaking about the case before the trial.
The head of the Sherobod district, Ziyodulla Davlatov, volunteered an account tallying with that of the bazaar, but he added some important details. He said that Sattoriy went to his office after the run-in with the market guards to complain that his phone had been confiscated. Davlatov said he then followed Sattoriy back to the bazaar, and that by the time he had caught up with him, the phone had been returned.
Davlatov professed to be bemused by the whole episode, which occurred only a couple of weeks after he was installed in his post. He complained that Sattoriy had purportedly come to film his report on food prices two days before the Mirziyoyev-mandated fair was due to start and that he was intent on producing misleading content, but he expressed generally positive sentiments about bloggers.
“There are bloggers who look at things from both sides. I regard them positively,” he told Eurasianet through a mask, between bouts of coughing caused by an allergy to raw cotton. “As long as I’ve been here, I’ve always spoken with them.”
Fact-checking is not bloggers’ strong suit, as some of them will freely admit.
Like the time Dastagul Ravshanovna, 50, announced on her Facebook account that Surkhandaryo governor Tura Bobolov had died. It was fake news.
Although it is true that Bobolov had at one stage contracted COVID-19 and needed treatment in the capital, Tashkent, he eventually returned to work.
It was late summer when Ravshanovna committed her fateful error. The coronavirus was tearing through the country.
Officials were radically undercounting the number of infected people and, almost certainly, the death tally too. Even as of this month, the government acknowledges only around 80,000 total cases and a little more than 620 deaths. Meanwhile, research has indicated that Uzbekistan experienced 14 percent excess mortality last year when compared with available figures from the previous five years.
This chasm between official narrative and reality is an ideal ecosystem for loosely sourced rumormongering.
Ravshanovna lives in Shargun, a small town close to the border with Tajikistan and a long, bumpy trek from Termez.
By day, she is a medic at a local hospital. In her free time, she updates her Facebook page with assorted fodder, including a fair amount of mild criticism of local authorities. She occasionally initiates fund-raising drives for down-on-their-luck cases.
Ravshanovna published her first post about three years ago, after tragedy struck.
“I wrote that my daughter had died with an illness. That was all,” she said, fighting back tears. “I needed to tell somebody. You can’t live alone.”
Mushtarihon was 20 when she died and had for many years battled severe cognitive and physical conditions. Ravshanovna remains bitter her daughter did not get the help she needed.
“After her death, I became a blogger, so that other sick people would not suffer too,” she told Eurasianet.
Now that she has gained some following, Ravshanovna receives requests for help from all over the country. Her correspondents want their stories amplified.
“I get messages from people in Ferghana, from Khorezm, from Kashkadarya, from the regions,” she said. “They tell me about how they are suffering with illnesses or how they are stuck in poverty. Some have troubles with the law. And they all want one thing: justice.”
The appeal of social media for Ravshanovna is its immediacy.
“Bloggers are people who see real life,” she said. “Journalists, when they get an interview, for example, they go back to their studios and offices, and then they have to think about whom this material might harm, whom it might benefit. While they’re thinking it over, a blogger has already published their material.”
That lack of mediation undid Ravshanovna, however. One day, she got a call from an acquaintance who works in the Surkhandaryo regional healthcare department. Her caller had shocking news: Governor Bobolov had died with COVID-19. Ravshanovna says she was skeptical at first.
“I said to her: ‘Hand the phone over to the doctor who works with you. Is there a doctor there?’ She said there was,” Ravshanovna recalled.
A man identifying himself as a senior doctor at the hospital repeated the claim. Ravshanovna is eager to stress that the message she then posted on Facebook was not meant to be sensationalist. She merely wrote to express her condolences.
A call from Bobolov’s office arrived within minutes. And then the police rang. The next day she was summoned to the offices of the Interior Ministry in the nearby town of Sariyoso. The price of Ravshanovna’s mistake was the confiscation of her beloved phone and a $270 fine.
The authorities still readily wield the whip, if only in monetary terms in most cases, against untutored social media users who blunder or engage in anything perceived to be offensive or insulting.
Sirojiddin Salomov, head of the Surkhandaryo department of the state media regulator, said that ignorance of statutes relating to insults, libel and the dissemination of false information was not tantamount to exemption.
“We can accept criticism. But bloggers should not view the idea of freedom of speech as a shield,” Salomov told Eurasianet in an interview at his office.
In countries with more evolved media systems and livelier democratic marketplaces, politicians must resign themselves to being verbally pilloried day and night. Uzbekistan is not there yet, Salomov said. Reputations there are far more delicate things.
“In our region, if somebody writes something [negative] about you, it can be really harmful for your career,” Salomov said.
Sattoriy’s predilection for incendiary accusations and a sharp turn of phrase landed him in a separate spot of bother at almost exactly the same time as his arrest.
At the start of January, he posted a message on his Telegram account accusing employees at the local zoo of stealing animal feed. Two weakened deer died of hunger as a result, he claimed, citing alleged evidence from other unnamed zoo workers. Sattoriy does appear to have had genuine sources, since he posted a photo of the deceased deer that only an insider could have snapped.
Zoo director Shukhrat Ulashev rejected Sattoriy’s charges and said that an investigation by government scientists confirmed that the deer had succumbed to a pulmonary condition brought on by cold weather.
The zoo management’s first instinct was to handle the matter as a public relations exercise.
“We issued a statement saying that what he said was not true. That it was not fair to spread such lies,” Ulashev said. “He should have just come here, studied the situation for himself, and then he could have written whatever he liked.”
Sattoriy did not do himself any favors by doubling down and taking to Telegram once more to describe zoo employees as “rats.”
“Rats? Who’s a rat? We’re all people here. And we should respect one another like people,” Ulashev said.
The zoo then took the case to the authorities. It was not alone. Another complainant was a coal depot company that also felt it had been defamed by Sattoriy.
Sattoriy would be charged on three counts – defamation, insulting a public official and dissemination of false information – and was fined around $1,000 by Termez city court. As of March 9, that fine had been suspended provisionally by a higher court pending further investigations.
The director of Sherobod bazaar is only one of eight known plaintiffs in Sattoriy’s upcoming trial.
In a March 1 statement announcing the end to its investigation, the Surkhandaryo Interior Ministry offered only a little more detail on the state’s case. The blogger’s extortion spree had, it said, spanned over a period starting from June 2020 and ran up to the day before his arrest. One of the other plaintiffs is the mayor of Termez.
No further specifics have been offered and the Interior Ministry turned down Eurasianet’s requests to elucidate this and other matters.
Salomov, the state media regulator, declined to comment specifically on Sattoriy’s case, citing the need to allow the judicial process to play out. He nonetheless dwelled at length on how certain citizen journalists have made corrupt use of their new-found influence.
“There are some bloggers who have turned this line of work into a way of gaining financial remuneration. There are cases of extortion that we hear about on TV. Somebody takes nude photos of a person and then blackmails them by threatening to post the images on social networks,” Salomov said.
But are such analogies valid for Sattoriy? The ultimate question is whether his true offense was extortion, as the police claim, or simply embarrassing and irritating officials.
Shortly after his arrest, the blogger’s family received a letter from the residents of a Termez neighborhood called Guliston. The signatories were among many families that had had their homes in the center of the city seized under eminent domain and were compensated with new buildings on the edge of Termez.
For four years they complained fruitlessly that the roads outside their new houses were unpaved and that their homes had not been attached to the gas grid. This was just the kind of story that the irascible gadfly Sattoriy could sink his teeth into. One time, he upbraided the governor, Bobolov, during a public assembly, accusing him of failing to provide citizens with basic amenities. In time, the badgering produced results and the neighborhood’s demands were met.
But that was not what the letter was about.
The 31 signatories claim in a petition addressed to regional and national prosecutors that they were approached by a police officer on February 2 and asked to put their name to a letter accusing Sattoriy of demanding money from them.
“We responded that we would not get involved in this slander against Otabek. We request that you adopt measures against this precinct inspector for this false accusation against the blogger,” the petition concludes.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.