Alisher Sidikov was a young journalist in May 2005 when troops from Uzbekistan’s security services opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters in the city of Andijon, leaving hundreds of Uzbekistan’s own citizens dead, including women and children. The massacre at Andijon marked a turning point in Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign affairs, as the government clamped down hard on civil society and free media organizations.
It was under these trying circumstances that Sidikov joined RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, which had been forced by the government to shut down its bureau in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in late 2005. The move left Radio Ozodlik, and now Sidikov, with a tough problem: how do you report the news for a nation of 28 million without being allowed to set foot inside its borders?
Fortunately, Sidikov and Radio Ozodlik have turned this tremendous hurdle into an advantage.
“This was a chance to find other ways to report and in fact our chief editors said that we were working better without the bureau in Uzbekistan,” explains Sidikov. Instead of despairing, Sidikov and the rest of the team at Radio Ozodlik turned to new sources and new methods of gathering information, relying as never before on citizen journalism.
Looking for Loopholes
“Radio Ozodlik is a pioneer in the new media technology in Uzbekistan,” Sidikov says, and begins to discuss the radio station’s SMS service, which allows ordinary people and governmental officials from all over the country to send in news tips to Radio Ozodlik via text message or phone. SMS is the easiest way for Uzbeks, 58% of whom have a mobile phone, to reach Radio Ozodlik.
What makes us unique is our absolute connectivity to ordinary people on a daily basis.
The response has been extraordinary: on average, according to Sidikov, Radio Ozodlik receives 60 calls every day concerning human rights violations, cases of child labour and torture. “Without any governmental accountability,” Sidikov says, “this is the most vital telephone number for [people] in Uzbekistan. The idea is that in the evening broadcasts, the person who violated your right will hear himself on air as a violator. We receive calls from the mayor’s office, for example, denying or explaining themselves to the public.This was not the case before 2005. What makes us unique is our absolute connectivity to ordinary people on a daily basis. Citizen journalism is a great tool that we are using.”
Just recently, Radio Ozodlik added a new media platform: Skype. The feedback and groundbreaking reports they have already started receiving have astonished Sidikov.
“We receive at least one contact request every hour,” he says.
Virtual Hunger Strike?
The platform Radio Ozodlik provides for Uzbek activists can sometimes take unusual turns.
Sidikov tells the story of two journalists from an Uzbek TV station who went on hunger strike to demand an end to media censorship, but were denied a permit to protest publicly.
“This is when we stepped in and opened up a Twitter account for them. We changed the rules of the game and brought the message out. These two journalists were able to go on a ‘virtual hunger strike’ and go on a direct debate with other Twitter users as well as discuss their conditions and demands on this public media platform.”
Despite the dangers to, and sacrifices of, Radio Ozodlik’s sources within the country, Sidikov still believes firmly that Radio Ozodlik is necessary now more than ever in Uzbekistan. “It is the response from people that tells us that we are on the right track.”
-- Deana Kjuka