The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is urging authorities in Uzbekistan to swiftly investigate the numerous online death threats received by staff members of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service ahead of next week's presidential election, and to ensure that the journalists can work safely.
The "unprecedented and repugnant" threats made to the RFE/RL employees in recent days should trigger a "clear response" from the authorities, the New York-based media-freedom watchdog said in a statement on October 21.
"No journalist should have to work in the face of such threats, and the Uzbek government should take immediate steps to investigate these threats’ origins and hold those responsible to account," said Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.
On a single day, October 16, mostly anonymous users of the Telegram messaging app sent dozens of death threats to staff members of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known in Uzbekistan as Ozodlik.
Over the course of 30 minutes, the service's Telegram channel received posts hurling insults at staff members and their mothers, and carrying threats of beheadings and sexual assaults. The posts were accompanied by images with pornographic elements.
Many of the images appeared to have been created by the same person or group, as they featured an identical caption reading, "Ozodlik's real goal is to marshal a mutiny in Uzbekistan, to disrupt peace, to discredit our president."
The service's Telegram communication managers found out that at least two threats came from accounts associated with users promoting the Uzbek government's policies related to the armed forces.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the online threats "disgusting," and urged the government in Tashkent to immediately end its intimidation tactics against independent media.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has positioned himself as a democratic reformer after he took over Central Asia's most populous state following the death of authoritarian predecessor Islam Karimov in September 2016.
However, arrests and attacks on bloggers and journalists have been on the rise across Uzbekistan ahead of a presidential election scheduled for October 24.
The website of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service was blocked several times, and RFE/RL's requests for official accreditation of its correspondents in the country have remained unanswered.
Uzbekistan ranked 157th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index.