When Shavkat Mirziyoyev became President of Uzbekistan in 2016, he vowed to launch ambitious reforms. Over the following years, his government abolished exit visas, settled border disputes, and opened the country to international investment. Those attempts at improvement won accolades; in 2019, The Economist declared Uzbekistan its country of the year.
But others are more cautious in their praise.
Freedom House's recently released report on Uzbekistan notes that while the reforms have led to improvements, the country "remains an authoritarian regime with little movement towards democratisation."
Uzbekistan has a long way left to go on the path towards real change. The atmosphere faced by the country's journalists is a case in point.
A new turn?
At the end of January 2020, prominent Uzbek businessman Komil Allamjonov and the president's elder daughter Saida Mirziyoyeva established the Public Fund for the Support and Development of National Mass Media. This new organisation intends to help develop journalism in Uzbekistan, defend press freedom, and "strengthen freedom of speech." Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva had previously worked together at the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC), which supposedly performed the same role as their new foundation.
It remains an open question why Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva felt it necessary to create another organisation with exactly the same role. It is possible that a nonprofit was better suited to achieve their lofty goals. After all, NGO status does confer certain advantages, allowing an organisation to fundraise independently to support its operations. In any case, it appears its founders have been fighting hard for journalists for some time. President Mirziyoyev already takes selfies with bloggers and berates media-shy officials.
But is the picture really so rosy? Are we really witnessing the emergence of a new fourth estate, able to influence public life and help create civil society in Uzbekistan? It may seem so from afar. But in reality, Uzbekistan's journalists still experience pressure from the government and state officials.
Direct threats are no longer necessary; there are many other ways to disrupt the media's work. Despite repeated criticism from the president, officials continue to deny journalists access to information. There are practically no publicly available statistics. Online and print media have negligible influence on public debate. Regular internet access has yet to become commonplace in many regions of the country. Not all media outlets are prepared to speak out about controversial topics, and practically all the country's television channels belong to state officials.
A chat with the security services
During the rule of Uzbekistan's first President Islam Karimov, journalists faced significant obstacles to their work. The authorities intimidated and harassed journalists, drove them out of the country, put them on trial, and arrested them. Each publication was assigned a "curator" — an employee of law enforcement agencies such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the State Security Service (SNB). They would regularly instruct the editor or owner which topics to ignore and which to amplify.
After Karimov's death in 2016, Uzbekistan underwent a "thaw"; a term used in reference to a similar period in the Soviet Union following the death of Josef Stalin. Over the course of Shavkat Mirziyoyev's first year in power, the reception rooms started to fill up again. That is to say, online and offline spaces emerged where people could meet state officials and ask questions. They could demand solutions to problems of public space, housing, and communal services. Officials entered into dialogue not only with ordinary citizens, but with journalists. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that this trend has continued to the present day. In fact, journalists are once again feeling the strong arm of the state.
During one of the training sessions, the editor of a popular media outlet in Uzbekistan admitted to me that he had been summoned to meet with the SNB after he returned from a press tour of the USA. The security services demanded to know exactly what he had done while overseas, whom he had spoken to, and what motivated him to go on the trip. Several bloggers have said much the same: they were invited to a chat at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and asked why they attended journalistic trainings. They were informed in no uncertain terms that doing so was wholly negative and against the interests of the state. Fear clearly remains an effective means of control, given that none of these respondents agreed to be quoted with their name.
A similar situation occurred with a non-staff reporter at Hook.report, the publication where I work as an editor. While working on an article about religious refugees, we sent a request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the name of the editorial office. We needed to find information on the number of religious refugees who had returned to Uzbekistan and how the state responded to their presence. Instead of an answer, our colleague was summoned to an informal conversation at the ministry. When he arrived, he was escorted to the counter-terrorism department where he was intimidated by ministry staff. They threatened him with a prison term and prosecution for promoting and abetting terrorism. They said that his family could face problems. He was gone for five hours. But things changed when he told them that he had brought a dictaphone to the meeting and may have been recording their words. It was perhaps the only thing which saved him from further pressure. Our colleague was released, but only after being warned "not to ruin [his] life."
Another example concerns a journalistic training course which was held in another post-Soviet state. It later turned out that one of the participants had collaborated with the SNB and had been covertly recording the training sessions. Upon arriving back in Uzbekistan, several participants received verbal threats from the SNB. If they wrote or said too much, they were warned, they would be prosecuted under Article 155.2 of the criminal code (on undergoing training or travelling in order to commit terrorist acts). Several participants said that these threats compelled them to seriously reconsider their prospects in Uzbekistan. However, so far they have decided to stay in the country. This seemed like a situation where the AIMC could have stepped in to help.
Naturally, the first thing on the participants' minds were the threats they had received from the SNB. Secondly, they had several reasons not to trust the AIMC. The businessman Komil Allamjonov, who headed the agency until recently, is closely connected to policymaking circles under president Mirziyoyev, just as he was under the previous president. According to several websites in Uzbekistan, it is rumoured that, under Karimov, Allamjonov worked closely with the country's chief tax official Botir Parpiev. With Parpiev's assistance, Allamjonov allegedly founded a business empire which includes the state of the art driving school Avtotest (which has gained a monopoly under Mirziyoyev's government), the newspaper Solik Info (to which all state institutions must subscribe, even though it is an independent publication), the Milliy TV channel, and the Bem automated accounting system among other assets.
This was the background against which Allamjonov became a presidential secretary. After a few months, he left that post and was transferred to the leadership of the AIMC, which was then known as the Uzbek Press and Information Agency. Upon taking up this post, Allamjonov decided to reach out to the country's bloggers and journalists – but not to all of them. A few representatives of the press were invited to a first meeting with the AIMC's new director on June 14, 2019 – a meeting which divided the journalistic community into those loyal and those disloyal to the government.
In a grand gesture, the AIMC (represented by Allamjonov) presented all those invited with several gifts, including a smartphone engineered by Artel, a company owned by Jahongir Artikhodjayev, mayor of Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent. Since then, Allamjonov has repeatedly invited the same people to the AIMC, carefully filtering out those who can get an "audience" and those who cannot. For example, the blogger Akida Khanum shot to prominence last summer when she was first invited to one of the meetings by Allamjonov himself. However, it then turned out that she could not enter the building as her name was not on the list of guests.
But Allamjonov moved on. This year, he left his role at the AIMC and became head of the Public Fund for the Support and Development of National Mass Media. This new NGO has established a public council which includes lawyers and bloggers perceived as loyal to the government.
Given Allamjonov's history, as well as that of the AIMC and the new public fund, it is far from clear that journalists can count on his protection and assistance if they come under pressure from the state.
The authorities appear to have opted for the carrot and the stick to keep the media in line. The stick is the SNB, which keeps a keen eye on everything written about the president. The carrot is Komil Allamjonov and Saida Mirziyoyeva, who promise protection from persecution – but with conditions.
No sources, no articles
Uzbekistan's journalists often depend on information from official sources when preparing articles. But it often happens that such information is not forthcoming.
According to Uzbekistan's law on mass media and information, anybody is entitled receive information from the government, as long as it does not constitute a state secret. This right exists regardless of institutional affiliation, and extends to media workers, employees of NGOs, and private citizens, who can request any details about the work of the government and expect to receive an answer within a specified period. However, this is the ideal scenario, and has practically no bearing on the actual state of affairs. Many government press services have their favourite journalists whom they treat preferentially when sharing information.
In the summer of 2019, the editor-in-chief of a popular newspaper in the capital told me that the press secretaries of a number of state institutions never responded to their requests for comment and only give comment to a single media outlet. "When we ask them for information, they tell us that they already told all they can to Gazeta (Uzbekistan's most popular online Russian language news site – ed.)," explained the editor. "They say that if we need information, we should take it from Gazeta and link to them. Providing a comment specially for us is out of the question."
This situation is far from unique. State press secretaries in Uzbekistan simply have no understanding of how to work with journalists, expecting them to act as PR specialists or propagandists. Requests for information fall in the cracks between various government agencies and the intended recipient. The state postal service is then accused of not delivering the letter properly. If a response nonetheless arrives, the information the agency provides is often of no use – the document is a standardised "reply" which does not even allude to the matter at hand.
In addition to the poor contact between the media and government institutions' press offices, Uzbekistan's journalists also face a lack of proper data. Publicly available data from the state statistical service often proves to be useless, inaccurate, or illegible. Although there are 52 such sources of public data in the country, many of them cannot be used for journalistic purposes.
For example, Data.Gov is the Uzbek government's main public data repository. However, if a journalist wants to find out, for example, how many public facilities the capital's mayoralty is responsible for, he will encounter a problem. That information cannot be found on the website, and neither can the same information about regional governments. There is a notable regional difference when it comes to data provision – either such information is never uploaded to the portal or it does not exist at all. There is another way of finding this out, but it's a method only a handful of journalists would need.
In Uzbekistan, the online registry of public procurements can only be accessed by entering the taxpayer identification number of the state or privately owned company of interest. However, there is no publicly available list of these numbers in Uzbekistan.
The same problem is encountered with land ownership records. In 2018, the World Bank allocated $20 million for Uzbekistan to create an open inventory of land titles. At the time of writing there is no information about the status of this project, nor where the money went.
In September 2017, the Uzbek government were supposed to pass a law which would have obliged officials to declare their incomes. But three years on, there is no such law nor no discussion as to why it has still not been passed.
These examples are characteristic of data access in Uzbekistan today.
The bottom line
The biggest obstacle to the media's existence in Uzbekistan today is money – or rather, its absence. Financial instability prevents publications from exerting pressure on the government. Most media outlets either depend on their owners' resources or on advertising revenue. Both of these funding options constrain journalistic work and compel the media to self-censor. The list of independent media outlets founded by journalists is a small one – there are only two such publications in Tashkent today. The fact that most of the remainder belong to businessmen might not be a problem were it not for the social realities of modern Uzbekistan.
Nepotism may as well be called of the country's "traditional" values. It flourishes in almost every walk of life. It's not enough to simply do your job well in Uzbekistan. The fortunes of businesses are heavily dependent on the government – poorly judged statements, dangerous moves, and signs of dissent can cost a businessman his operating licence or jeapoardise payments and contracts. The government has more than enough instruments of pressure, ranging from tax audits to sanitary inspections. That is why a businessman who owns a media outlet will be keen to ensure that published materials are as conformist as possible. Allowing anything else would risk not only the editorial board's jobs, but the life's work of the businessman in question.
Karimov's rule instilled strong self-censorship among Uzbekistan's newsrooms and mutual distrust between journalists
Uzbekistan's advertising market is also extremely poorly developed. Most advertisers are more interested in working with the standard PR publications and do not want to risk their reputations. Running advertisements in dissident media outlets can have repercussions for advertisers.
Finally, the most important problem is that there are no independent institutions in Uzbekistan which have the right to assist journalists. Here there are no donors; in principle donations from abroad are forbidden by law. In fact, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the only states in Central Asia which do not permit their journalists to accept support from international organisations. When those same organisations do try to register themselves in Uzbekistan, they encounter a number of obstacles.
Over the past three years, two prominent international organisations who prefer to remain anonymous have been attempting to receive permission to work in Uzbekistan. Following Karimov's death, it seemed as though the new authorities were interested in developing a strong media sector and wanted to their assistance. But time after time, the organisations were refused registration, as officials continued to declare that "foreign investment in the media is hostile to the state."
Karimov's rule instilled strong self-censorship among Uzbekistan's newsrooms and mutual distrust between journalists. That is one reason why journalists do not publicise their encounters with the SNB – because any other media worker could be working with the security services. They may be doing so under duress, or have chosen to do so in hope of "career advancement." With such a divided media sector, Uzbekistan's government is thereby able to impede the development of civil society and the growth of journalism as a real fourth estate able to hold power to account. This strong unwillingness of journalists to collaborate with each other is one of the biggest obstacles Uzbekistan's media sector faces today. Journalists in Tashkent do not know about their colleagues in the regions, what media might exist elsewhere in the country, and what stories they cover. Such a fragmented and weak community is unlikely to become a strong actor in Uzbek society.
What can be done to make a lasting difference? That remains an open question. But for now, there there is a simple solution: stop being afraid and start speaking up. That is already starting to happen, albeit cautiously. Perhaps, after a few years, Uzbekistan's media can strengthen its influence and become a civil society actor of substance. But for the time being, we only hear lofty goals and beautiful words rather than real calls to action.
I wish to end with one small request: if you do not want to help Uzbekistan's journalists in this goal, then at least try not to interfere. Perhaps then everything will change.