Uzbekistan: 'Muzzled Again'
Uzbekistan: 'Muzzled Again'
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

Uzbekistan: 'Muzzled Again'

The Uzbek government toys with the EU over a media conference, and gets away with it.

It was on. Then, it was off. Next, on again. And off again. Finally, Uzbekistan held its “media freedom” conference without having to host any of those pesky journalists and civic activists who might ask questions like, “How is it that you’ve signed international conventions on freedom of expression and yet no independent media outlets exist in Uzbekistan?” Or “Why are so many Uzbek journalists in exile, in prison or in the cemetery?”

The back-and-forth confusion over the meeting was not some unfortunate scheduling muddle. It was in fact a deliberate ploy by the Uzbek regime to keep control over the event, originally planned as a European Union-Uzbekistan seminar on media and democracy, to which each side would invite 15 participants. The EU invited a range of people, including a number of those inquisitive civil-society types.

Anyone familiar with the authoritarian regime would naturally ask why Tashkent agreed to such a seminar in the first place. Surely those running one of the most closed societies in the world had little intention of actually hearing any of their critics in a public forum, let alone opening up the country’s newsprint, airwaves and Internet to non-government-approved opinions.

True, but agreeing to hold a media freedom seminar still had its uses.

The Uzbeks’ promise of the meeting, initially planned for 29-30 May, was a specifically mentioned part of the justification EU foreign ministers used at their meeting on 29 April to suspend Europe’s targeted sanctions against regime leaders. Those restrictive measures were established in 2005 in response to the Uzbek security forces killing hundreds of demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan, and they included a visa ban on those officials most responsible for the massacre – though with the notable exception of President Islam Karimov himself.

Once European leaders had made their decision to ditch the sanctions, however, the Uzbeks saw no further need to actually host the event and abruptly cancelled it, saying they were unhappy with some of the people the EU had invited to take part. A few days and some bad European press later, the EU and Uzbekistan agreed to a new date, 9-10 June, but with only two weeks’ notice, the logistical hurdles were too great for the European Commission, and the EU decided to pull out of the seminar.

Then, on 2 June, the European Commission said it was cooperating with Tashkent on a different media freedom meeting – not the “seminar” but a “conference” – on the same dates, 9-10 June, but none of the EU’s earlier invitees would be called to attend. That meeting was held, and Tashkent’s hand-picked attendees predictably praised the regime for its approach to the media, issuing the most embarrassingly obsequious statement imaginable. Naturally, critical organizations released their own statement on the event.


Why does any of this matter? It was an EU-Uzbekistan seminar, then it wasn’t. Or maybe it still was. So what?

First, the whole bait-and-switch episode demonstrates how the EU can be completely outmaneuvered by an authoritarian regime. In this case, the EU began with sanctions on regime leaders and set out several Andijan-related criteria for lifting them, including a demand for an independent inquiry into the massacre. But EU foreign ministers later ignored their own criteria and allowed the promise of a media seminar, along with Tashkent’s release of a few high-profile prisoners from among the thousands the regime has unjustly jailed, to serve as an excuse for packing up the sanctions. They allowed themselves to forget about Andijan altogether, and then they did not even get the measly seminar they were promised. EU policy toward one of the harshest dictators in the world has thus been reduced to, “thank you, Mr. Karimov, may I have another?”

With the regime now allowing other NATO countries to use the German military base in Termez, southern Uzbekistan, the West in general and specifically the EU – led by Germany on all issues related to Uzbekistan – seem desperate to be deceived. All they want from Karimov is a little fig leaf of a gesture to allow them to resume business as usual. A couple of human rights defenders freed from prison or a pathetic shadow of a “media freedom” conference is enough.

Second, a possible opportunity to address the complete lack of media freedom in Uzbekistan has been lost. The chance to go to Tashkent and say what Uzbek journalists themselves dare not say is gone. Rights organizations that have been following the country for years and are refused registration to work in Uzbekistan are still unable to talk there about the journalists jailed or exiled for exercising their professional duties; about the restrictive laws allowing the authorities to persecute any journalist who publishes something the regime deems hostile; and about the large number of international media unable to get accreditation for their reporters to cover the country.

The hostile approach the regime has toward the media continues unabated. On 7 June, just days before the conference, Salijon Abdurakmanov, a journalist with and formerly with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was arrested in the city of Nukus in the western Karakalpakstan region. And on the very same days the media meeting finally took place in Tashkent, two regional Uzbek TV stations, Namangan TV and Ferghana TV, were vilifying journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, not only accusing them of all sorts of crimes but also airing their personal details and those of their families, including their addresses and where their children go to school. Disturbingly, this is exactly what happened with a journalist named Alisher Saipov last year, and within a week or two of Uzbek regional TV slandering him, he was murdered.

Third, Uzbek citizens will not be able to take even the tiniest step out of the information black hole they have been living in. Stories the state-controlled media are not allowed to cover – such as the Andijan massacre, systematic torture of suspects in police custody, and the annual use of forced child labor on a massive scale during the cotton harvest – will remain taboo.

Obviously, one media seminar, with or without EU involvement, was never going to change that, but a single ray of light in such uncompromising darkness might have provided some solace to those silenced journalists able to attend and others who would have learned about it.

The lack of free expression in Uzbekistan is more than a violation of various international human rights treaties to which Uzbekistan is a party. With no free media, and no independent opposition political parties, citizens have no peaceful outlet for their grievances. As social and economic frustrations continue to mount, so too does the likelihood of mass violence.

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