Uzbekistan and Russia have pledged to jointly create a television channel, potentially setting the stage for Moscow to bolster the heft of its soft power in the Central Asian nation.
During talks with his counterpart in Tashkent this week, Russian Deputy Telecommunications and Mass Media Minister Alexei Volin also reportedly discussed bringing Russian documentary filmmakers to Uzbekistan to produce movies and television shows. Volin traveled with a delegation that included representatives from state media holding company Rossiya Segodnya, which includes Sputnik news agency in its stable of media outlets, and the Pervy Kanal and Rossiya-24 television stations
There are no details yet about when the proposed channel will come into being or what specific type of content it will feature.
To some extent, Russia is pushing at an open door with Uzbekistan. Especially in the capital, Tashkent, and other major cities, cable television packages readily provide a large array of Russian stations for monthly fees of only a few dollars. For Russian-speakers, that output is often favored over Uzbek television content, which can often tend toward the anodyne. Programs created together with a local broadcaster for a local audience could well cement that cultural brand loyalty.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been vocal about his irritation at the quality of some domestically produced television productions. At a government meeting in March 2017, he complained about the blandness of TV news shows, noting that “the time for hooray patriotism has passed and we should have critical and analytical content on our televisions, so that viewers might instead await TV shows with impatience.”
In July, a rolling news channel, Uzbekistan24, duly appeared on the airwaves. The station was evidently modeled on Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24, right down to the name, indicating where Uzbek media workers are taking their cues.
Meanwhile, in a bit of fortunate timing, Caravanserai, a website funded by the US Department of Defense, on April 16 published a piece arguing that ever more Uzbek news consumers are purportedly turning away from Russian sources of information. Although data shows Sputnik, for instance, to be one of the most visited sites in Uzbekistan, the article cites social media marketing experts as saying that trust levels are low.
Pushing its case further, Caravanserai cites one Tashkent resident, 35-year-old Munisa Abdullayeva, as saying she is particularly suspicious of Sputnik.
"I don't trust Sputnik because its publications are very agenda-driven," she told Caravanserai, adding that the website regularly features "flat-out opinions from unknown political analysts.”
While there could well be some truth to this, coming from a website that has for years sought to play on Central Asian anxieties about the imminent dangers of Islam-inspired terrorism — a case often put in the mouth of obscure analysts, as it happens — the line of argument is striking for its brazenness.
As it opens up to cooperation with outside parties on the media front, the Uzbek government continues to battle internally with the remaining influence wielded by the waning state security services.
RFE/RL’s Uzbekistan service, Radio Ozodlik, reported on April 14 that the government-run broadcaster has scrapped a senior executive position traditionally held by an overseer from what was recently rebranded as the State Security Services (formerly the National Security Services). Ozodlik described Addusalom Shodmonov, the outgoing deputy chairman of the National Television and Radio Company, or NTRK, as the “eyes and ears” of the security services at the broadcaster.
“[Shodmonov] was in charge of producing special programs about officials accused of corruption and representatives of the opposition, and he would take decisions about the edit in these reports,” Ozodlik’s report noted. “According to journalists, he wielded total control over personnel, he managed the hiring and firing process and he interfered in everything, right down to people’s holidays.”