Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country. In 1991, Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign country after more than a century of Soviet rule. President Islam Karimov has now been in power for nearly two decades, and he secured another seven-year term of office in 2007. There is no real internal political opposition; Karimov has consistently secured over 90% of the vote in general elections. He has repeatedly extended the constitutional limit on Presidential rule. International observers have deemed the Uzbekistan elections to be neither free nor fair. Economically, there is a wide and widening gulf between the rich elite and the poor majority in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s biggest producers of cotton and is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. However, in the tightly centralised planning of the economy, reform has been painfully slow.
The state maintains tight control of the media. Despite a constitutional ban on censorship and guarantees of press freedom, many groups, including the media rights body Reporters Without Borders, have said that the use of violence against journalists and disinformation by the authorities are commonplace. Independent journalists have been threatened, imprisoned, interned in mental hospitals and framed for bribery and corruption. The government often uses false charges of terrorism to imprison critical journalists.
Two serious cases concerning honorary members of English PEN in Uzbekistan concern journalists who were associated with the opposition newspaper, Erk, which was banned in 1994. Muhammed Bekzhon and Mamadali Makhmudov were both arrested in 1999 accused of being involved in a series of explosions in Tashkent. Muhammed Bekzhon was arrested in March 1999 and was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. It is still widely believed that his arrest was linked to his work on Erk. There have been reports of torture whilst he has been incarcerated, and visitors in early 2001 were alarmed by his state of health. Mamadali Makhmudov was arrested in February 1999. He was charged with “threatening the constitutional order”. It is thought that his arrest is linked to his association with exiled opposition leader Muhammed Salih and that some of the charges of his arrest are linked with his contributions to Erk. During his trial he testified that he had been tortured under interrogation, including beatings, electric shock, and threat of rape of his female family members.
Independent journalists were targets of repression in 2005 in the wake of events in the eastern city of Andijan in May. Troops opened fire on protesters against the jailing of people charged with Islamic extremism. Witnesses reported a bloodbath with several hundred civilian deaths. The Uzbek authorities put the overall toll at less than 190. In the aftermath of Andijan events, journalists were expelled from the area and foreign TV news broadcasts were blocked. Many opposition journalists were arrested and foreign media outlets were accused of being agitators. The BBC’s coverage of the uprising led to the closure of the corporation’s bureau in Tashkent some months later. The US media aid organization Internews and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty were also hounded and their staff forced to leave the country.
Uzbek journalists who have tried to investigate what happened in Andijan have faced harassment, for example Alo Khojayev, editor of Tribune-uz, closed his website after he and his family allegedly received death threats. English PEN’s Honorary Member, the journalist Djamshid Karimov, who is the President’s nephew, has been held at the Samarkand Special Psychiatric Hospital against his will since his disappearance on 12 September 2006, after trying to look into the events in Andijan.
When the authorities rejected calls for an international inquiry into Andijan, the EU imposed sanctions and the US threatened to withhold aid. Soon afterwards, parliament voted to demand that US forces leave their base in the south of the country. Fifteen people were later convicted of organising the unrest in Andijan and jailed for between 14 and 20 years. Dozens of others were also jailed for lengthy terms. Many outside observers deemed these to be show trials.
Since May 2005, the limits on the freedom of media, political opponents and civil society organizations have increased. Internet users are targeted as all local service providers (ISPs) have been forced since November 2005 to use the state-controlled telecom operator Uzbektelecom, which enables the regime to compile blacklists. As such, the websites of independent journalists have been blocked.
Pressure from the government is applied on local independent journalists to break all ties with foreign-funded media. Regulations have also come into place restricting the rights of journalists by making it illegal for them to contribute to foreign media outlets, unless the Ministry of Foreign Affairs first accredits them. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the power to expel foreign media, refuse visas and accreditations and it is illegal for foreign journalists to interfere in Internal Uzbekistani affairs.
Sources: For further information, based on primary research, see the annual reports from Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.org/), the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (http://www.cpj.org/), Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.fr/) and the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (http://ifex.org/) . See also Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/). For more general information on Uzbekistan, see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office country profile (www.fco.gov.uk).
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Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/honorarymembers/uzbekistan/