Pressure increased on the country’s few remaining independent journalists in the run-up to the December 2007 presidential election won by outgoing President Islam Karimov (88% of the votes) and featured intimidation, prosecution, forced public confessions and internment in psychiatric hospitals.
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Journalist and human rights activist Umida Nyazova was arrested in late January 2007 on her return from several weeks in Khirgizia and accused of entering Uzbekistan illegally and possessing banned material, for which she risked between five and 10 years imprisonment. The news website uznews.net said police found on her laptop a Human Rights Watch report and witness statements about the bloody May 2005 anti-government uprising in Andijan. She was sentenced to seven years in prison on 1 May 2007, later suspended after she publicly confessed and, under intense pressure, criticised the work of the organisations she was working with. She was pardonned in February 2008.
Another rights activist, Gulbahor Turayeva (a doctor and mother of four), got similar treatment and was given a six-year sentence in April for supposedly trying to overthrow the government, for insults and for distributing subversive material. She was freed in June after being forced to name journalists (now living abroad) who had been with her at the Andijan uprising.
Stringers for foreign media targeted
The regime went after four local stringers working for the German state-funded radio station Deustsche Welle in the first half of 2007, even though the German government favours easing international sanctions against Uzbekistan. The move was seen as a tough warning to all independent journalists and regime critics. Natalya Bushuyeva was targeted in March by the Tashkent prosecutor for tax evasion and failure to get accreditation. Facing almost certainly up to three years in prison, she fled to Sweden.
Another stringer, Yuri Chernogayev, was suspected of helping Bushuyeva flee and was accused in March of tax evasion and then three other offences (“insulting the president,” “insulting the country” and “producing and distributing subversive material”). But an international campaign in favour of the stringers saw charges against all of them dropped in June.
A February 2006 decree banned foreign media journalists from criticising government policy in the form of interference in “internal affairs” and insulting “the honour and dignity” of Uzbeks and provided for cancellation of press cards. Local stringers for these media must get accreditation from the foreign ministry, which is extremely hard and sometimes for a shorter time than legally required. These applications force journalists underground. The decree (clauses 22 and 23) also bans foreigners and Uzbeks from working with non-accredited journalists, or face prosecution.
Said Abdurakhimov, of Uznews.net, and Alexei Volosevitch, of Ferghana.ru, were arrested by soldiers for no apparent reason on 23 July 2007 and lengthily interrogated. Uznews.net and Ferghana.ru are two independent anti-government news agencies. Access to their sites is blocked inside the country and their journalists do not usually get permission to work inside Uzbekistan.
The government information office ordered on 31 July the closure of the independent weekly Odamlar Orasida, which had reported on various sensitive topics such as prostitution and homosexuality.
Independent journalist Jamshid Karimov, the president’s nephew, forcibly detained in a psychiatric hospital since 2006 after denouncing corruption, managed in August to smuggle out news that he had become very ill, with serious memory loss and failing eyesight. Doctors said he was in a “balanced and stable condition” however and he was not freed.
State media under control for presidential vote
As the 23 December 2007 presidential election neared, President Islam Karimov tightened his control over the media. A survey by Reporters Without Borders showed that the state-controlled press and broadcast media parroted every word of the election news put out by the official UzA news agency. Their coverage of Karimov and the four candidates allowed to stand against him heavily favoured Karimov, who was featured everywhere as the great hero, and his opponents (who included no significant figure) were not to be seen. Any mention of unfortunate or even negative events was removed from the media. Karimov, who is on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom, was declared reelected as head of central Asia’s most populous country with 88.1% of the vote.
This did not prevent the European Union (EU) softening its stand when it started human rights talks with Karimov in Tashkent on 8 and 9 May. Four Uzbek officials banned from the EU were allowed to travel there again. Sanctions imposed after the Andijan uprising, when rights groups say about 800 people were killed (187, according to the regime), had already been eased in November 2006.