Uzbekistan: Plea for greater press freedoms greeted with rebukes and silence
Mirziyoyev has himself said he wants a free press, although his remarks are greeted coolly by skeptics.
In a rare display of unity, more than 40 Uzbek journalists and activists last week put their name to an open letter addressed to the president raising their concerns about the problem of “hidden but strict” censorship.
Signatories to the petition pleaded with Shavkat Mirziyoyev to intervene in the interests of ensuring a truly free media scene.
Although appealing to the president with this request was not out of keeping with the norm under a personalistic regime where the head of state is presumed to yield ultimate say over most areas of public life, the letter has nonetheless come as a surprise. Speaking out on sensitive public issues is still perceived as unwelcome behavior and many remain wary of incurring the state’s hostility.
The letter, which was published online on March 3, opened by paying homage to reforms carried out since Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016. The signatories then note, however, that those who “express any opinion in society” are still facing “pressure and intimidation.”
“The press cannot raise those issues which it wants to,” the letter reads. “A state body responsible for controlling information continues to apply pressure on editorial staffs and bloggers, so that they change their tone, format, and the nature of the information [they relay] or so that they don’t publish that information at all.”
Although it is not spelled out, this may be an allusion to the Information and Mass Communications Agency, a state media regulator whose overbearing pressure is familiar to media workers. Attempts by the agency to censor reporting on COVID-19 statistics and an energy crisis in 2020 sparked a backlash from normally pliant news outlets, who protested that the regulator was limiting press freedoms.
Another state body historically known for intimidating the press is State Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB.
Anticipating a common line produced by state officials, the letter’s authors played down the idea that allowing more freedom of expression could lead to social instability. The press and blogger “are not interested in … upsetting the social and political situation in Uzbekistan,” the letter stated.
The appeal did not dwell on any specific cases of pressure or censorship.
“It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular. Everything has led to this,” one of the signatories to the letter told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity as they fear repercussions for speaking out publicly on the subject. “But the very fact that activists decided to raise the issue of censorship is a positive step.”
Advocates of the free press in Uzbekistan could not be blamed for suffering from a hint of cognitive dissonance.
Only last month, it was Mirziyoyev himself who spoke out in defense of the media. In a video released by his office, Mirziyoyev is heard to say that unspecified figures had pressed him to “shut down the media,” but that he had resisted that impulse.
“Do you like the spirit of freedom? I like it,” he says in the video. “Yes, it can be harder for me to work in these conditions. They tell me: ‘Shut them down.’ But I am not shutting anything down. What, so it’s like what was before, when the prosecutor’s office and security services were the ones who oversaw things?”
It is not clear from the footage who is supposed to have pressed Mirziyoyev to act against journalists. What is more obvious is that the release of the remarks is intended to show the president in a benevolent light, as a selfless champion of a truth-seeking fourth estate. The comments also unwittingly illustrate the fact that the fate of the press in Uzbekistan is indeed dependent on one person, however.
“Going by his words, it turns out that freedom of the media is some act of generosity granted to the people,” Ibrat Safo, a journalist for BBC’s Uzbek service, wrote following the release of Mirziyoyev’s remarks. “The press should be free, immaterial of whether the head of state favors it or otherwise.”
Mirziyoyev has not yet responded to last week’s petition, but the state-backed Union of Journalists has. They are unamused. The suggestion that anybody is pressuring journalists is nonsense, the union thundered.
“Nobody, not a single state organization ever tells the media: ‘Don't write this, write that,’ the union said in its statement.
The union suggested instead that it was Uzbek journalists that were at fault for failing to comply by a basic code of ethics.
“Calling them to order […] cannot be considered an attack on freedom of speech, pressure or censorship!” the union stated.
Ilyos Safarov, another signatory to the appeal, rejected this admonition.
“The Union of Journalists issued a statement that contradicts what we wrote, but what they have said is a complete lie,” he told Eurasianet.
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