The privately-owned independent media hardly exists in Uzbekistan. Journalists criticise government policies, local officials or President Islam Karimov’s associates at their peril. Taboo subjects include the regime’s systematic use of torture in prisons and the drafting of schoolchildren to work on the cotton harvest, as well as public health problems and Russia’s opposition to the Iraq war (which ran counter to Uzbekistan’s strong support for US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks).
Steps in mid-2002 to ease censorship and enactment of a freedom of information law in February 2003 did not improve press freedom however and censorship in fact increased. In early May 2003, a senior editor at the state TV was sacked for filming live Karimov’s reaction during a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Tashkent when the bank’s president criticised him for not condemning torture in prisons. Several anti-censorship demonstrations were later staged outside the state TV building.
Journalist and press freedom campaigner Ruslan Sharipov was arrested in May and sentenced to four years in prison for homosexuality after a sham trial. He was tortured in jail beforehand and threatened with an injection of HIV/AIDS virus to force him to plead guilty. Four other journalists were in prison on 1 January 2004.
Eight journalists imprisoned
Jusuf Ruzimuradov, editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, was jailed for eight years and one of his journalists, Mohammed Bekzhanov, for 15 years on 18 August 1999 for allegedly intending to overthrow the government by force, belonging to an illegal organisation and insulting the president in the media (punishable under article 158.3 of the criminal code). Members of Ruzimuradov’s family were threatened with rape, and torture and psychological pressure were used to extract confessions from him. The journalists are being held in the central region of Navoi.
Majid Abduraimov, of the weekly Yangi Asr, who criticised government and legal officials, was arrested on 10 March 2001 and jailed for 13 years for corruption on 1 August that year.
Journalist Ergash Bobozhonov was arrested at his home in the Ferghana Valley on 17 February 2003 and accused of libel in three articles he wrote in the independent weekly Res Publica in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 1999, 2000 and 2001. These criticised the incompetence and abuse of power of an official in the Ferghana region, Satyvaldy Mirzaev, and his harassment of the journalist and his family and also criticised badly-run local secondary schools. Bobozhonov, 61, was also accused of disclosing state secrets and making death threats. He was roughed up by police when he was arrested. He was freed on 26 February and the charges against him dropped under a amnesty.
Gayrat Mekhliboyev, a journalism student at Tashkent University, was sentenced to seven years in prison on 18 February 2003 for belonging to the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir and for anti-constitutional activity and religious agitation. He had been arrested on 24 July the previous year in a Tashkent market during an anti-government demonstration (which he denied taking part in) and accused of possessing "illegal written material" and using his journalistic activities to promote religion, a month after finishing his journalism studies at Tashkent University. At his trial, which opened in Tashkent on 5 February, he was accused of writing an article on 11 April 2001 in the newspaper Khurriyat headed "The Scales of Justice," in which he discussed the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He admitted studying the party’s doctrines but denied possessing banned writings and said the article was based on his own ideas. He told the court he had been beaten in detention awaiting trial and forced to sign a letter begging forgiveness for his alleged crimes. But the judge did not order any enquiry into this. His sentence was reduced by six months on 14 March by an appeals court and his convictions for incitement to religious hatred and belonging to an illegal organisation were struck down.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, Moscow representative of the opposition quarterly Kharakat (printed in the United States and distributed in Uzbekistan) and a regime opponent and human rights campaigner, was arrested on 20 July in Moscow for possessing drugs. He was also accused by the FSB secret police of having ties to Islamists. The Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Helsinki Committee said it was put-up job by Russian officials as a favour to Uzbekistan a few days before an official visit to Tashkent by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a Memorial press conference on 24 June, he had fiercely criticised the 7 June arrest of 55 suspected Islamists, mostly from central Asia.
Boimamat Dzhumayev, correspondent in Karshi (Kashdarya region) of the newspaper Mulkdor (organ of the state property committee), was sentenced on 15 August to three years in prison for corruption and abuse of power. He was accused of extorting $500 from the head of a local branch of the central bank and was arrested on 12 May. He said the bank official had lent him the money after he told him the paper had trouble getting subscribers. The handover of the money had been filmed. The paper’s editor, Miradyl Abdurakhamanov, said the charge was bogus and that Dzhumayev had been set up because he had accused local officials in several articles of abuses and preventing the growth of small businesses.
A Tashkent appeals court sentenced journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov to four years in prison on 25 September for homosexuality (article 120 of the criminal code) and sexual relations with a minor (article 128). A former head of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU) and local correspondent for the Russian news agency Prima, Sharipov, 25, was arrested on 26 May. On 8 August, he was forced to "confess," dismiss his lawyer and ask President Islam Karimov to forgive him for everything he had written criticising the authorities. On 5 September, he wrote to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan saying he had "confessed" after being physically and psychologically tortured, threatened with death and forced to sign a bogus farewell letter to make it look as if he had killed himself in case he died in prison. He said interior ministry agents had also threatened to beat up his lawyers if he did not dismiss them. One of them, human rights activist Surat Ikramov, was attacked by four thugs in Tashkent on 28 August just after he had been to see the judge in charge of the case on the eve of a planned demonstration in support of Sharipov. Sharipov, who has never denied he is bisexual, said on 27 May he did not know the alleged victims, who were arrested on 26 May and held for several days. His lawyer said the youths were beaten and threatened by police to get them to give evidence in court. The case was postponed several times because of their absence from the courtroom. Sharipov has been frequently harassed by the authorities in recent years to get him to drop his human rights work and criticism of the government. On 25 November, he won the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) for his "outstanding defence and promotion of press freedom in the face of constant physical danger, prison and censorship."
Seven journalists arrested
Oleg Sarapulov, of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU), was arrested in Tashkent on 22 February 2003, not allowed to contact his family or a lawyer and interrogated about two articles he had written criticising the government and which he was accused of intending to distribute since they were in his possession at the time. He said police has planted propaganda among his belongings about the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which wants to set up a caliphate in central Asia. He was freed two days later.
Rohila Ochilova, correspondent of the US radio station Voice of America, was arrested on 24 March in Samarkand while reporting on a demonstration by students demanding the reinstatement of the head of the Foreign Languages Institute. State security agents seized her passport, damaged her dictaphone and claimed she was breaking the law. Police also arrested Solikh Yajhyayev (journalist) and Rinat Kodirov (cameraman) for the Internews media development and assistance organisation, at the same protest and seized the film they had taken.
Yadgar Turlibekov, of the international media aid and development organisation IWPR, Tulkin Karaev, of Voice of America, and Dmitri Aliaev, of the British BBC radio, were arrested on 27 May when police broke up a demonstration outside the interior ministry in Tashkent. They were freed two hours later.
Four journalists attacked
Khusnudtin Kutbetdinov, correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, and Yussuf Rassulov, correspondent for Voice of America, were beaten up by 15 thugs on 7 March 2003 while covering the arrest at Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar of women demonstrating against the arrest of relatives who had been accused of being Islamist activists. The thugs then urged bystanders to attack the journalists as police did nothing. One of the thugs said he was under the orders of the interior ministry, which a ministry spokesman denied later that day.
BBC correspondent Matluba Azamatova was attacked by a crowd Alty-Aryk (near Marghilan, in the Ferghana Valley) on 14 August while reporting on a demonstration organised by human rights activist Mutabar Tajibaeva in front of the public prosecutor’s office.
Galima Bukharbayeva, representative in Uzbekistan of the international media aid and development organisation IWPR, was set upon by police at a demonstration in front of the state-run TV building in Tashkent on 6 November as she tried to protect human rights campaigner Elena Urlaeva from them. The police accused her of being a "Western agent" and a "provocateur" and threatened to arrest her.
A journalist threatened
Deputy education minister Rustam Qosimov announced at a press conference on 3 March 2003 that the ministry’s weekly paper Milliy Talim was being shut down because of its "grammatical errors" and lack of funding less than a month after starting up. Editor Ismat Kushev publicly criticised the decision the same day, called on several top officials to resign and said he was ready to go on hunger-strike. He said the government was afraid of honest and independent editors raising the country’s true cultural and media problems. He said he had received death threats for protesting against the paper’s closure and had had menacing phone calls, including from deputy minister Qosimov, who warned him he would be hanged if he kept on protesting.
Harassment and obstruction
Russian freelance journalist and human rights activist Nikolai Mitrokhin was refused entry into the country on 18 and 22 January 2003. Both times he was held for several hours at Tashkent airport and sent back to Moscow without being told why. He said it was probably because of what he had written criticising rights violations in Uzbekistan.
During the US-British invasion of Iraq in the spring, most programmes about the war from Russian TV stations and the European station Euronews were censored. Only the pro-war Uzbek point of view was heard.
Amirkul Karimov, editor of the weekly Khurriyat, was summoned by presidential officials on 14 March and told to resign. He said he was criticised for articles exposing rigging of cotton harvest figures and reporting how children were forced to pick through garbage to find something to eat.
Police tried to stop Associated Press reporter Burt Herman and a Voice of America colleague (who wanted to remain anonymous) talking to a group of women demonstrating outside Tashkent prison on 17 March against the conviction of two Muslims for belonging to an extremist group. Police accused the journalists of organising the protest and said reporting on it would give the country a bad name.
The authorities closed the daily Russian-language Vremya i mi, the country’s fourth biggest paper, on 26 March, officially for economic reasons. Its journalists said it was a political decision because the paper was one of the few to mention sensitive topics such as economic reforms and social problems.
Several foreign journalists - including Bagila Bukharbayeva (Associated Press) and Marina Kozlova (United Press) - were barred from a press conference given by President Karamov during a parliamentary session at the end of April.
Ahmajon Ibrahimov, a senior editor at the state-run TV, said on 6 May he had been sacked because President Karimov had been shown in a bad light during a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development meeting in Tashkent two days earlier. Karimov was shown throwing off his earphones in annoyance when the bank’s president, Jean Lemierre, denounced the use of torture in Uzbek prisons as well as numerous other human rights violations in the country.
Ibrahimov was accused of not cutting off the picture in time. The channel’s boss, Farkhaf Ruziyev, was criticised for putting him in charge of covering the event. But Ibrahimov was reinstated on 20 May after a demonstration calling for an end to censorship on state-run TV.
Freelance journalist and human rights campaigner Olim Toshev was fined 250 euros on 23 May and ordered to pay a fifth of his salary to the government for two years for allegedly attacking a woman. He had been sacked as editor of the Kashdarya regional weekly Posbon in May 2002 for printing criticism of police abuses soon after censorship was officially abolished. Toshev, who has been harassed by police since he was fired, said the charges against him were bogus.
Elmira Khassanova, of the fourth state TV channel, was dismissed on 24 May for publicly protesting against censorship of state TV programmes. She had taken part in a demonstration in front of the state TV building on 20 May organised by Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, in protest at the sacking of senior editor Ahmajon Ibrahimov. Several other journalists backed the protest but Khassanova was the only one who showed up.
Her programme was taken off the air on 21 May and two days later management decided to sack her for "actions damaging the president," though an attempt was first made to get her to resign on grounds of supposedly poor work. After international protests, she was reinstated on 26 May but was still under pressure to resign and her pay was reduced. Her programme is regularly censored, especially when she mentions human rights violations in the country.
Alisher Saipov, correspondent of Voice of America, was "asked" to come to the state security offices in Tashkent on 30 May, where a Capt. Isabek Nazarov questioned him about his work and asked if he had contacts with the banned Uzbekistan Islamic Movement. Nazarov asked him to spy on the Islamists and on other journalists. Saipov refused and was allowed to leave.
The staff of the weekly Mokhiyat resigned on 15 July in protest against censorship by the paper’s new management. Editor Abderkayum Yuldashev had resigned in May after government pressure.