Uzbekistan Tightens Screws on Bloggers
Uzbekistan has introduced new no-go areas for bloggers, tightening up a media environment that is already among the most repressive in the world.
Bloggers are now banned from using online platforms for a long list of activities, the Anhor website reported: from calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order to questioning Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity; and from promoting pornography and narcotics to disseminating information inciting ethnic or religious enmity.
Promoting war, violence, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism is also a no-no, under amendments to the law governing IT affairs which came into force on September 5. So is divulging state secrets, and publishing information that may harm someone’s reputation and violate their right to privacy (a provision likely to act as a deterrent to whistleblowers).
The ban on calling for the overthrow of the state and questioning territorial integrity come as Uzbekistan, like other states in the region, appears rattled by the conflict in Ukraine and by Russia’s aggressive expansionist rhetoric. This year has witnessed a spate of online calls for independence for Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, and – while the credibility and motives of those posting them under pseudonyms is in question – the material has no doubt raised eyebrows in Tashkent.
The legislation introduces a broad legal concept of a blogger, as an individual posting “generally accessible information of a public-political, socioeconomic, and other nature, including for discussion by users.”
There is no mention of criminal sanctions for those deemed in violation of the law, but the sites they use can be blocked.
While much of the content of the legislation may appear sensible, observers are concerned it will become another tool to muzzle the media in authoritarian Uzbekistan, where it may come in handy for the administration of President Islam Karimov as parliamentary and presidential elections approach (due in December and March respectively).
The wording of the law is “quite liberal,” Sergey Yezhkov, editor-in-chief of the Uzmetronom website (which is believed to have links to the security services), suggested in a commentary published on September 5. “But the internal voice of a person who is quite well-informed about how freedom of speech is treated in real life in Uzbekistan suggests that everything is not so simple.”
Since many websites reporting on Uzbekistan are already blocked inside the country (including EurasiaNet.org) and most independent journalists have fled abroad, the law seems to be deliberately targeting citizen journalists still trying to tell the story from the ground, Yezhkov suggested.
The Association of Information Technologies of Uzbekistan rejects such notions, however. “The law does not bear a ‘repressive’ nature,” it said in a statement carried by the Uztag news agency on September 4; on the contrary, it “substantially simplifies bloggers’ activities” by setting out their obligations and leaving no room for “ambivalent interpretation of requirements” for those publishing online.
Uzbekistan already operates one of the world’s most tightly controlled media environments. This year Reporters Without Borders ranked it 166th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.