When a Free Press Might Aid Terrorists

Getting News in Uzbekistan

Nov. 10, 2001: A woman in Termez, Uzbekistan, a small town on the Afghan border sells shopping bags decorated with the Statue of Liberty. The war in Afghanistan has brought an influx of reporters, and influences, from the West (Photo: AFP).

A decade after Uzbekistan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, President Islam Karimov, who has ruled since independence, keeps the Uzbek news media on as short a leash as he keeps the political opposition.

Since the United States began air strikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7, foreign journalists have flocked to Uzbekistan. The National Press Center says over 100 foreign journalists have visited in the past month compared to the handful who previously visited Uzbekistan. As they clamor for information relating to the crisis in Afghanistan, they have been frustrated by the restrictions on the press that they have encountered.

"My God, one does not come to know anything here," French TV journalist Jean-Pierre Canet complains. "Before I came here, I would hear reporters from the region asking the editors to tell them what was happening. And the editors would say, 'What do you mean? You should be telling us what is happening.' And then the reporters in the field would explain how difficult it is to get information. Now I am facing the same problem."

Uzbek government officials are reluctant to speak to the press. They are simply not in the habit of doing so. There has simply never been a tradition of independent or critical reporting in the press here. Journalists' attempts to develop such a tradition have had little success. Muhammed Bekjanov and Iusuf Rusimuradov continue to serve 14- and 15-year sentences, respectively, for their involvement with the banned opposition newspaper Erk. And on June 7, 1999, the Uzbek government's Interagency Coordination Committee effectively closed one of Uzbekistan's few remaining independent television stations, ALC TV.

Uzbek reporters are reluctant to "go on the record" about government censorship for fear of reprisals. But Barun De, a professor at the University of the World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, is more forthcoming. "During my three years here, I have been told that the press treads very carefully. It reports only what the government wants it to. And, should someone publish something that does not go with the government stance, I am told there will be a phone call to the editor the very same day. If such a 'mistake' occurs a second time, the finances of the newspaper will be cut off and soon it will be forced to shut down," De explains.

"Nothing appears to have changed since the Soviet days. There are still people who mention Karimov's name in a lowered voice, looking up at the light fixture because there may be a bug in it," he adds.

A less dismal picture is painted by journalists of the independent Turkiston News Agency, established a couple of years ago by a group of over 50 shareholders. While some members of the local government-owned media organizations are somewhat puzzled at the foreign press' frustration, most also see the flood of foreign journalists here as a refreshing change. "Yes, our press has a long way to go. We are independent but we are still reined in. We have made some progress since 1991 but there is still not a single journalist in the whole of Uzbekistan who can be said to be truly independent, who can go anywhere and express himself freely," explained Alisher, a journalist with the agency, who asked that we only use his first name.

But hasn't Karimov insisted that he wants a critical media? Hasn't he publicly rebuked ministers for refusing to give interviews?

"That's just lip-service," Prof. De scoffs. "Well, even in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, the freedom of the press was upheld," quips an Uzbek journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Yes," Karimov Amirkul, Chairman of the National Press Center of Uzbekistan, concedes, "For 70 years under Soviet rule, the press was oppressed. The legacy is still with us. But there's another reason why the press is very guarded. In the past, the culture here was that what was printed in the newspaper was the gospel. The effect of that culture is still there. So the press is careful not to criticize too much. People feel discussion is bad, they don't yet look at it as 'constructive criticism'," he says.

Alisher agrees there may be some truth in this explanation. "There are certain bad elements in our society," he explains, referring to Islamist militants such as Tahir Yuldash's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has reportedly received training and logistical support from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. "A freer press would be beneficial to them. We are fighting those elements that are detrimental to Uzbekistan. So it's proper that our transition to a free press should be a slow one."

According to the National Press Center, there are 721 news outlets registered in Uzbekistan, including 507 newspapers. The government owns 394 of these.

The most popular newspaper is Darakchai, an independent weekly published in both Uzbek and Russian by STV in Samarkand. It has a circulation of more than 200,000.

Despite the proliferation of media organizations since independence (prior to 1991, there were only 290 news publications), the pace of the transition to a free press has been slow. As Alisher puts it, "Just 10 years ago, young people were discouraged from asking questions, from criticizing. It will take time to inculcate an atmosphere that encourages free thinking and expression in our schools and colleges."