Seven journalists in Uzbekistan have been arrested on extortion charges in the biggest raid targeting media workers since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016.
The journalists work for Human.uz, an outfit that specializes in video reports covering domestic and foreign affairs. Authorities insist the group is connected to gossipy Telegram channels. In an apparently related development, local media on January 30 reported the arrest of the press chief of the employment ministry.
Plainclothes police broke down the door, sealed Human.uz’s office and searched hard drives during the January 27 raid, the outlet said in a statement.
Among the seven employees forcibly detained and taken away were Human.uz's director Khurshid Daliyev and editor-in-chief Muslim Mirzazhanov.
From that point on, colleagues lost all contact with them and did not receive official confirmation of their arrest until the evening, when the State Security Service (SSS) released a statement saying the journalists had been detained for “crimes carried out through Kompromat.uzb and other [Telegram] channels.”
The Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMC), the media regulator under the presidential administration, said the arrests had been prompted by individual complaints submitted to the state prosecutor.
This is not the first time extortion charges have been leveled at media workers. Two years ago, politically active video blogger Otabek Sattoriy from the southern city of Termez was arrested and then sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail for extortion and libel.
That case was viewed by some observers as a warning about red lines not to be crossed by bloggers whose criticism of authorities was at one point publicly encouraged by Mirziyoyev.
Whilst Human.uz covers both domestic current affairs and international politics, Kompromat.uzb is a Telegram channel full of rumors about politics and business.
In a Telegram post that prefaced the SSS’s own release on the arrests, the deputy director of state information agency UZA, Khushnudbek Khudayberdiyev, told his more than 520,000 followers that the journalists had been arrested in their capacity as administrators of Kompromat.uzb.
Human.uz called the allegations “baseless” and said that the arrests were “in full contradiction to the policy of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and a threat to freedom of speech.”
British Ambassador Tim Torlot took to Twitter on January 30 to register his concern and call for a fair and transparent investigation.
News of the raid also elicited an alarmed response from the Public Foundation for the Support and Development of National Mass Media, a state-linked body that was until recently led by Komiljon Allamjonov and Mirziyoyev’s oldest daughter Saida Mirziyoyeva.
Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva now have plum posts in Mirziyoyev’s administration: Allamjonov is deputy chief of staff and Mirziyoyeva heads up the communications section. But they are believed to retain influence at the Public Foundation.
“We are waiting for clarification on this issue from law enforcement agencies and demand that the safety and legal attitude to the professional activities of journalists be ensured,” the the Public Foundation said in a statement. The Public Foundation lists Human.uz director Daliyev as a member of its public council.
The SSS has not commented on the detention of Mavzhuda Mirzayeva, the employment ministry’s press chief. But private news outlet Kun.uz, citing sources close to the investigation, reported that her detention is connected to the case against the Human.uz journalists. According to these sources, Mirzayeva has been placed under arrest for an initial period of 10 days beginning January 27.
Kun.uz also interviewed Mirzayeva’s daughter, Zarina Mirzayeva.
“I am very worried about my mother’s condition. Why don't they give us, close relatives, any information about the case?” Mirzayeva asked.
Despite the increased freedom of expression seen since Mirziyoyev ascended to power in 2016, the picture for Uzbekistan’s media overall is bleak.
Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, ranked the country 133rd out of 180 nations in its 2022 Press Freedom Index.