Media Development in Challenging Environments: Uzbekistan after Andijan
Media Development in Challenging Environments: Uzbekistan after Andijan
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 12 minutes

Media Development in Challenging Environments: Uzbekistan after Andijan

In the harshest authoritarian states, the scope for media development work is severely restricted. Authoritarian countries such as Uzbekistan, Burma and North Korea, although all presenting different scenarios, pose tough challenges regarding media assistance. However, these countries and their populations should not be forgotten. One such specific challenge is the Republic of Uzbekistan, which will require a set of specific strategies to help support the future development of media and democracy in the country.

Though increasingly difficult to implement on the ground, media development and freedom of information projects are still possible for the Central Asian state. A close look at the opportunities there demonstrates just what might be achievable if the international community makes a well-funded and concerted response to a deteriorating situation

The two key aspects of media development, infrastructure improvement and journalism training, have both received some attention in Uzbekistan in the past, with international media NGOs such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Internews and others involved in the region for many years thanks to strong donor support from a wide variety of international sources. Working inside Uzbekistan was never easy: over the last five years in particular, these NGOs and their local representatives were finding it increasingly tough. Requirements for state registration and re - registration were only one small part of the pressure that the regime put on these organizations. Indirect and not so indirect threats by security services against local NGO staff were a regular feature of media development efforts in the country. And never far from anyone’s mind was the risk of being taken into custody by the security services, where torture has been copiously documented by human rights groups and labeled "systematic" by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

This dangerous and difficult mix turned extremely toxic following the Andijan massacre of 13 May 2005, when state security forces fired on mostly unarmed civilian demonstrators killing hundreds, perhaps even one thousand. After that, as the regime’s ongoing paranoia about the media, NGOs and media development in particular expanded into open denunciations of journalists, both international correspondents and local staff of major outlets such as ARD, BBC, CNN, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Associated Press, Deutsche Welle, and, as well as local staff of NGOs, such as IWPR.[fn]The regime’s campaign against NGOs post-Andijan extends beyond media development NGOs as well. See “Uzbek Government Exerting Pressure on Local NGOs to Close ‘Voluntarily’“EurasiaNet, 4 October 2005. Also, “Hard Times for Uzbek Charities”, Reporting Central Asia (IWPR), 1 October 2005.Hide Footnote  As an example amongst many, the BBC announced on 26 October 2005 it was suspending its news gathering operations in Uzbekistan and withdrawing all local staff after continued persecution of its employees by the authorities.[fn]“Harassed’ BBC shuts Uzbek office”,

In such an atmosphere, conventional media development projects are very nearly impossible inside the country, and yet the need has clearly never been greater, so creative solutions must be found. What is needed, and what is still possible to implement, are "lifeboat strategies", projects that can maintain media skills and journalistic integrity - not to mention provide independent information to and about the country - in the expectation of future change to a more reasonable government.

As with other sectors of the economy, media cannot be left to wither and die and then be expected to somehow resurrect themselves when the regime is gone to create professional institutions instantly from scratch. Preparations need to be made now, so that when society does open up again, skilled, responsible journalists and effective media infrastructure can respond quickly to meet the information needs of a transforming country.


Developing media technology on the ground to update the country’s decrepit publishing and distribution capacity seems impossible at this time. The funding of an independent printing press, which proved effective in disseminating information in Kyrgyzstan even when official channels were blocked,[fn]The democracy-promotion NGO Freedom House was responsible for the independent printing press, set up in Bishkek in November 2003 with funding from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor. The US Embassy in Bishkek also provided generators when public electricity supplies proved inconsistent.Hide Footnote is clearly not feasible in Uzbekistan today. But preparations can and should be made for the rapid establishment of such a printing press for immediate deployment when the ice starts to break under the regime. Hand in hand with this, a plan should be developed to create new news gathering and distribution networks throughout the country as quickly as possible. The goal should be to have a ready – to – roll capability to take advantage of any new political flux to establish a small daily paper in the shortest time possible given technical constraints.


Lifeboat strategies for Uzbek media can include training for Uzbek journalists, but new approaches are needed. In the past, journalism training in Central Asia has focused on class work and on - the - job training in the West as well as training workshops in the region led by western journalists. Both have seen their day. Training in the West was always complicated by language issues, and, more importantly, by the fact that it related experiences that were wholly inappropriate and inapplicable in the Central Asian context. Knowing how to gather information and write a good English language article for a paper in the free societies of New York or London was little value to a person upon return to authoritarian Tashkent. Training by Westerners in Central Asian capitals also suffered from similar problems, but a dearth of high-quality journalists and journalism trainers in the region made it necessary.

This is no longer the case. After many years of training journalists and "training the trainers" projects by Western NGOs, the region has a reasonably strong domestic capacity for journalism training. There are talented journalists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (mostly now living outside Uzbekistan), who have years of reporting behind them and experience as journalism trainers, both for on - the - job training and classroom training, and they can provide instruction in local languages. In general, young journalists can learn much more from them than they would from a Western journalist, because these experienced Central Asians have dealt with the problems journalists face in the region – oftentimes problems that Western journalists find difficult even to imagine. The exchange of experiences between journalists from different countries in the region is particularly useful: learning how to handle political pressure or obstructive officials, for example.[fn]For further discussion of the benefits of involving locals as journalism trainers in the region see Kuban Mambetaliev, “Donor Policies in Support of the Mass Media in Central Asia”, a paper delivered at the International Donors Policy Forum on Media Development in London, UK, 13-14 October 2005.Hide Footnote

International donors should support the establishment of an independent journalism training centre for the region. The trainers and lecturers should be experienced Central Asian journalists who ideally teach only part-time so their practical skills aren’t dulled. The centre should develop special efforts to reach out to Uzbekistan’s journalists with both short-term training programs and longer term in-residence possibilities for teachers and students to improve their skills outside of the country.


After the Andijan massacre and the crackdown on journalists and media support NGOs that followed, news gathering and reporting went from extremely difficult to nearly impossible. About the only independent sources of news Uzbekistan’s citizens can access are via the Internet and by shortwave radio broadcast. These outlets need to carry on their work, but more avenues to information need to be opened up. The case for a new Central Asian news agency is strong.

As of early 2006, there were only two US-funded projects to establish regional news agencies, one with IWPR and one with Internews. The latter project, called "Newsfactory", is more agency - like in its extensive reach to small media outlets in towns throughout Kazakhstan. It should be expanded to take in other countries in the region, especially Uzbekistan, though not by working with existing Uzbek media outlets, as it does in Kazakhstan. The Uzbek outlets are simply too closely controlled by the regime to provide objective reporting or any potential for publishing outside material. A network of anonymous correspondents across Uzbekistan should be created, with editors in Almaty or Bishkek coordinating their reports and protecting their identity. These reports can be entered into the agency system and thus offer regional media access to independent daily reports from across Uzbekistan.

Getting the reports back into Uzbekistan will be difficult. They could enter existing systems online, on shortwave radio, and on broadcast outlets in neighbouring countries, which many Uzbekistan citizens can easily access. But more distribution routes are needed.


FM broadcasts in Uzbek from radio stations just over the border in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would reach the largest number of Uzbekistan’s citizens. Although it may increase friction between Tashkent and its neighbours, if political reluctance in Astana and Bishkek can be overcome, the potential for large audiences and real-time reporting makes FM radio the most effective medium.

Newspapers printed abroad and distributed to shuttle traders on the borders and to migrant workers, in neighbouring countries (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and in Russia, would reach 

important audiences with information not tightly controlled by Tashkent. People may find them too dangerous to bring into Uzbekistan, but they would be passed around in border towns outside Uzbekistan, and the stories will be carried into Uzbekistan in the memories of the readers. The target audiences will come to rely on these new newspapers more quickly if they report not only news items but also business information professionally useful for these economically active groups.


There is certainly more scope for online news aimed at Uzbekistan. True, Internet access is limited within the country, but online reports are read by the most influential and best educated - both those in the current regime and, presumably, anyone likely to play a decision-making role in a future government. EurasiaNet, IWPR, Transitions Online and others publish excellent web-based material (the first two with significant Russian - language output), but they have limited capacity: each can only produce a handful of stories about Uzbekistan every month. The websites of RFE/RL and BBC World Service deliver news in Uzbek, but again, harassment of both has been fierce. Tribune - has material in Uzbek and Russian, but it tends to cover what the outside world is saying about Uzbekistan more than report from within the country itself, and it is not a source of independent journalism. None of the above provide a dedicated daily news service about Uzbekistan for Uzbek citizens. has come closest to providing a daily service, but without resources for an expanded network of correspondents, it takes much of its information on Uzbekistan from other sources, with a heavy reliance on state news agencies (especially the Russian ITAR - TASS and RIA Novosti) and on Kyrgyzstan’s AKIPress. An expanded news agency project, as proposed above, could offer its Uzbek material online for free, possibly by having that particular material underwritten by international donors.

The Uzbek regime has been very actively engaged in Internet censorship, closing down and threatening local websites and blocking certain external sites. Though their ability to block outside websites doesn’t seem to be nearly as comprehensive as China’s, it would be beneficial for groups that have taken an interest in providing advice on avoiding the censors in China to add Uzbekistan as a focus country.[fn]The openNet Initiative should soon complete its extensive report on the Internet in Uzbekistan.Hide Footnote


Asking journalists to collect information inside Uzbekistan presents serious practical and ethical problems. The risks are great, but there are numerous journalists and activists who are willing to take that risk, and the value of their reports is irreplaceable. Editors must take all measures possible to protect the identity of their correspondents, who essentially work underground with no open office, no legal registration and no accreditation. Anonymous correspondents must have appropriate cover - jobs that help them gain access to useful sources, and they can never be open about their work as journalists, not even with colleagues or indeed, in many instances, with interviewees.

Questioning of official sources as a way of trying to ensure balance and objectivity can be undertaken by other writers, who are located outside the country. In some cases and for some stories, correspondents on the ground may only act as fixers who identify potential sources and pass phone numbers to their editors, so journalists working from safety abroad can then ask controversial questions.


Apart from helping to finance the expansion of the news agency and the further development of these other projects, the international community can provide support in other crucial ways. The Open Society Institute (OSI) has been looking into the establishment of a legal defence fund for litigation in support of media freedom worldwide. Funding for legal defence itself in the strictest sense, of course, would be of little value for journalists who cross the authorities in Uzbekistan. But part of OSI’s project would involve supporting media freedom cases in international fora, which can bring international attention to the crimes of repressive regimes. There are, for example, a few cases pending before the UN Human Rights Commission involving the closure of media outlets in Uzbekistan.

What is also sorely needed for Uzbekistan is a journalist protection fund. It is essential that any journalist running into trouble as a result of working with an undercover news gathering project has a retirement option other than torture in an Uzbek prison. Some international journalism groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), are trying to meet these needs, but their human and financial resources are extremely limited. In 2005, CPJ worked with eight Uzbek journalists in exile, but it had to dedicate a substantial portion of its global emergency funds to do so. If underground reporting is expanded as it should be, donors will have to help boost resources for journalist protection.


A region-wide satellite television station is another project already in the pipeline that would benefit from expansion, additional outside support and extra attention to Uzbekistan. With funding from USAID, Internews is hatching a new satellite station to broadcast primarily in Russian to Central Asia. In addition to broadcasting via satellite direct to Central Asian homes, this new station would, like the agency project, act as a content exchange hub between different existing TV outlets in the region. It is an ambitious and somewhat costly project, but it has impressive potential for the spread of information.

Unfortunately, while the technical aspects are coming together, the station will face a severe shortage of independent content. The partner stations in the region are controlled by state or state-friendly owners, so without independently produced material, there is a danger the new satellite station will look more like a propaganda exchange. What is needed is funding for the development and production of more independent TV content in the freer Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps elsewhere outside Uzbekistan. Such material could come from freelance journalists, activists or production companies, but this will require additional finances, which would be best dispersed through a middle-man donor with both excellent regional knowledge and an ability to handle numerous small-scale grants.


As with too many repressive regimes around the world, the situation in Uzbekistan could all too easily lead to despair and a feeling that it might simply be better to wait until political changes present wider scope for democracy support projects. But although the obstacles are many and the dangers to staff are great, the prospects are not as hopeless as it may first appear. What emerges from a careful analysis is that limited openings do exist even in a highly authoritarian state, and there are a number of very real opportunities to promote journalistic professionalism and freedom of information.

Of course, not all of these projects would be possible for all such states around the world, and Uzbekistan does have something of an advantage because the country has benefited from a small wave of media development projects in the late 1990s and early years of this decade, which have laid the groundwork and produced able journalists who are now prepared to carry on that tradition, even if from exile. In fact, it is thanks to these journalists that the world learned the details of the Andijan massacre from first - hand accounts. If no one maintains these media development efforts, there is unlikely to be anyone on the ground to report the next massacre.

Apart from maintaining at least some check on the exercise of power, freedom of information and skilled media professionals can also help cushion the blow when a despotic system finally unravels. A dramatic political upheaval without quick - responding, experienced, balanced reporting on the ground is a recipe both for heightened chaos and violence domestically, and for ill-informed decision - making among the international community as they attempt to respond to rapidly changing events. Rather than lament a lack of opportunities, policy makers ought to actively and generously pursue the lifeboat strategies that will help societies ride out the rough waters toward which they seem inevitably headed.

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