Uzbekistan14 December 2005
Closure of Radio Free Europe office signals endgame for free media
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Press freedom violations have escalated since the Andijan killings in May 2005, said Reporters Without Borders, pointing to a growing tally of assaults, threats, beatings, sentences, expulsions and office closures, culminating in that of Radio Free Europe on 12 December.
The offices of the BBC and media training organisation Internews have been shut down in the past few months.
“We are particularly pessimistic about the shocking state of the media in Uzbekistan which has deteriorated sharply since the Andijan uprising in May 2005,” the press freedom organisation said.
“We are very worried by this terrible toll and the climate of censorship and witch-hunt against the independent media orchestrated by the Uzbek authorities, “the organisation added.
The Uzbek foreign ministry officially closed the offices of the US news radio and public information Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 12 December. The minister refused to grant annual accreditation to its local office, which is obligatory for all media wishing to work in the country. Four journalists on the radio also had their official accreditation suspended.
The office had already been struggling to operate since August 2005 after the existing accreditation expired. One of the radio’s correspondents, Nosir Zokirov, one of the first journalists on the spot in Andijan, was sentenced to six months in prison on 26 August 2005 for his coverage of the storming of the prison in Andijan.
In a report on 13 December, Radio Free Europe said that at least nine correspondents in the Uzbek office had received telephone threats, as had members of their family. They had also been questioned by members of the security services, had their recording equipment seized and some had been beaten.
“A former journalist who requested anonymity, told us that people cannot look at one particular press and particularly at opposition websites without risking being sacked from their jobs,” the organisation added.
After the closure of Radio Free Europe, independent Uzbek media is in freefall and has little remaining readership in the country. The weekly Hurriyat only sells 3,500 copies and the vast majority of newspapers belong to the government, state bodies or political parties. The main foreign news agencies are still present in Tashkent such as France-Presse (AFP), Reuters and Associated Press (AP).
They have to take the place of independent media in a media landscape that has been entirely sown up by the government of President Islam Karimov. Ironically, in Tashkent, publicly-owned Russian news agencies Ria Novosti, Itar-Tass and the private agency Interfax appear to be relatively objective in their coverage of Uzbek news, although they are much more controlled in Moscow. Other foreign media like the German international radio broadcaster Deutsche Welle have local correspondents but no permanent offices.
Internet remains Uzbekistan’s most independent media. There are a number of ‘citizen journalism’ sites, such as Ariena in Russian (www.freeuz.org) or websites run by opposition parties like the pro-democracy party Erk and another party, Birlik. However these last are often targeted for censorship and are routinely blocked by the authorities.