Journalists and other critics of the government in Uzbekistan remain under pressure from legal restrictions, politically motivated prosecutions, and fear-induced self-censorship, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.
“Despite an improved landscape for open debate and critical reporting…these actions undermine President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s stated reform goals," the New York-based rights group said in its report released on March 28.
HRW said its 37-page report -- titled You Can’t See Them, But They’re Always There: Censorship And Freedom Of The Media In Uzbekistan -- examined the environment for journalists, media outlets, and the exercise of free speech since Mirziyoev became president in September 2016.
Mirziyoev took over Uzbekistan after the death of authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who had ruled the predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia since the Soviet era. Mirziyoev has released political prisoners as part of an apparent policy of gradually reducing authoritarian control.
HRW said it found that despite some positive moves -- such as easing certain restrictions on free expression -- censorship remains a powerful barrier to free expression, and that journalists, writers, and citizens expressing critical views continue to face “selective prosecution.”
“Meaningful and lasting reforms in Uzbekistan are only truly possible if the government fully embraces free speech for all citizens and shows that criticism has a protected place in society,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW.
“The way to put this into practice is to end censorship and the draconian prosecutions of journalists and support the growth of genuinely independent media.
“Mirziyoev should demonstrate that central to his reform is not just toleration of peaceful criticism of government policies -- whether by journalists, rights activists, journalists, or religious believers -- but genuinely valuing it,” he added.
Along with ending media censorship, HRW urged Uzbekistan to drop ongoing prosecutions of reporters and allow effective access to information, including online, as a means to “decisively break” with former leader Karimov’s “abusive legacy.”
The report said interviews with 22 journalists, editors, and media owners from 17 government-registered, independent, and international news outlets did turn up some gains in Uzbekistan, a country of 32 million people bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.
"Many reported that media freedom had increased slightly and described a dynamic and competitive environment in which new Uzbek-language and Russian-language publications have appeared," it said.
Nevertheless, it added, "all still pointed to fear of repression by security services as a major factor in the way they work."
"The continuing widespread intimidation of journalists by security services and the police leads to self-censorship in the media. With few exceptions, journalists said they still feared the professional repercussions if they exceeded the -- as of now unclear -- limits of the government’s tolerance," the report said.