Security services in Uzbekistan have for the last few days been ordering the closure of internet and computer gaming cafes across the country in what appears to be an attempt to clamp down on suspected extremist religious activity.
One such internet cafe visited by EurasiaNet.org on Navoi street, a main thoroughfare in the capital, Tashkent, was found under lock and key. An employee at the establishment said that officers with the National Security Service, or SNB, arrived on April 19, disconnected the internet connection and ordered immediate closure of the building.
The same scene has been playing out across Tashkent and beyond.
The manager of one internet cafe, Rasul, said that SNB officers at his place spent a long time inspecting his servers and printers.
“My colleagues have said that in some internet points there were some people printing out leaflets belonging to the the banned religious group [Hizb ut-Tahrir] and that this was happening after the terrorist attack in Sweden, which was done by a citizen of Uzbekistan,” said Rasul, who declined to give his surname.
The deadly truck attack in Sweden earlier this month that left four people dead has refreshed concerns about Uzbekistan’s perceieved susceptibility to radical Islamist-inspired violence. Uzbekistan has claimed it passed on information about the man accused the attack to Western security agencies in 2014 and is seemingly intent on being seen to take active measures to further stamp out any manifestations of radical Islamic beliefs.
Most internet cafe workers questioned by journalists in Tashkent have declined to offer any details about their situation out of concern for the safety.
Internet cafes have been in the crosshairs before.
In February 2015, Tashkent city hall issued a decree banning such establishments from opening after 9 p.m. The same decree also stipulated that hard drives in internet cafes should not contain any materials “propagating debauchery, religious extremism, nationalism and gambling.”
According to official figures from Uzbekistan in 2016, there are about 13 million internet users in the country. But Freedom House has reported extensive restrictions implemented by the authorities to limit online freedoms.
“The government of Uzbekistan monitors and controls online communications, and engages in pervasive and systematic blocking of independent news and any content that is critical of the regime, particularly related to foreign and domestic affairs or human rights abuses. The opaque system offers few details on how decisions are made or what websites are blocked at any given time,” Freedom House said in its Uzbekistan country profile in Freedom on the Net 2016 report.
Since July 2015, popular and money-saving communication applications like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber have become either partially or wholly inaccessible. And in April 2016, the Uzbek parliament adopted strict new penalties for anybody suspected of using telecommunications to distribute what it termed “extremist propaganda.”