As relations between the Uzbek government and the West worsened after 2003 and entered a deep freeze in 2005, foreign media outlets and organizations in Uzbekistan increasingly found themselves the targets of hostile official scrutiny. Western organizations working with Uzbek journalists were particularly hard hit. Now, new government rules seem to have been designed to close off the remaining avenues of independent cooperation between Uzbek journalists and what the government sees as undesirable outsiders.
Citing government harassment, the BBC's Uzbek Service closed its Tashkent bureau for six months in October 2005. The same month, Internews, a media-focused nongovernmental organization, lost its final appeal and shuttered its offices in Uzbekistan. RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau was stripped of its accreditation in mid-December 2005.
The three cases shared a common element. The BBC, Internews, and RFE/RL are foreign organizations that served to link not only Uzbek journalists and Uzbek news consumers, but also Uzbek journalists and the international community. More importantly, this link was not subject to the control of Uzbek authorities. When it was severed, an important avenue for independent communication between Uzbekistan and the outside world was lost.
But official efforts to ensure a controlled media environment in Uzbekistan did not end with the departure of those three organizations. On March 7, Uzreport.com published the text of a February 24, 2006 cabinet resolution with new "basic rules regulating the professional activities of foreign media correspondents in Uzbekistan."
The new resolution replaces a September 11, 1998 resolution with the same title. The two are similar, but a side-by-side comparison of the texts reveals two important differences.
The first involves what accredited foreign correspondents are expressly forbidden to do. The relevant passage occurs in point 23 of the 1998 resolution and point 21 of the 2006 resolution.
1998 Resolution, point 23
"Accredited foreign journalists are forbidden to promote war in any way, to lobby through their channels the positions or interests of extremist, criminal, or other illegal forces, movements, or individuals, [and] to speak out in favor of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred in a fashion constituting incitement to discrimination, animosity, or violence."
2006 Resolution, point 21
"Accredited foreign correspondents are forbidden to call for the violent change of the existing constitutional system, the violation of Uzbekistan's territorial sovereignty by promoting war and violence, cruelty, ethnic, racial, and religious animosity. They are also forbidden to interfere in the internal affairs of Uzbekistan, to insult the honor and dignity of Uzbek citizens, to interfere in their personal [lives], or to perform other actions, responsibility for which is mandated by Uzbek law."
If the 1998 resolution forbids foreign correspondents from promoting violence, hate, and extremism, the 2006 resolution equates the promotion of "war and violence, cruelty, ethnic, racial, and religious animosity" with calls for "violent change" and "the violation of Uzbekistan's territorial sovereignty." Moreover, the 2006 resolution explicitly states that foreign correspondents cannot "interfere in the internal affairs of Uzbekistan," leaving undefined what such unwanted "interference" might constitute.
The new text also regulates interactions between foreign correspondents and Uzbek citizens, stating that foreign correspondents are forbidden "to insult the honor and dignity of Uzbek citizens, to interfere in their personal [lives]." Once again, the nature of the undesirable interference is left undefined.
The second key difference concerns Uzbek citizens' interactions with unaccredited foreign media. The 1998 resolution does not treat this issue, but the 2006 resolution states: "The professional activities of Uzbek citizens in the capacity of representatives of foreign media who/that have not received accreditation through the Uzbek Foreign Ministry are forbidden and entail liability under Uzbek law."
In other words, the new text stresses that it is illegal for any Uzbek citizen to perform "professional activities" for an unaccredited foreign media outlet, or for an unaccredited Uzbek citizen to perform "professional activities" for a foreign media outlet. The resolution does not define the meaning of either "professional activities" or "representative of foreign media."
Taken together, these two innovations in the 2006 resolution tighten control over the interactions between the foreign media and Uzbek citizens. The first sets up for accredited foreign correspondents a broad "no-go" category of undefined "interference" in Uzbek internal affairs and the private lives of Uzbek citizens. The second warns Uzbek citizens that if they engage in any form of "professional activities" as "representatives" of unaccredited foreign media, they are breaking the law.
The implication is that accredited foreign journalists should tread carefully in Uzbekistan, and Uzbeks who risk contact with foreign media that their government deems undesirable do so at their own peril.
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