Blogging in Uzbekistan: welcoming tourism, silencing criticism
Uzbekistan celebrates the Day of the Mass Media Worker on 27 June. The holiday is a remnant of the Soviet tradition to honour members of a particular profession. The official rhetoric of the government is that bloggers are becoming a welcome part of the community.
In recent years, Uzbekistan has been opening up to the world and wants to bring the whole truth to the international community. Most importantly, you can discuss, criticise. Know that the President will always support you.
The 2019 World Influencers Congress, the brainchild of the State Committee on the Development of Tourism, was aimed at boosting international interest in Uzbekistan by making it a popular tourist destination for visitors from all around the world. More than 100 bloggers and social media influencers from 40 countries flocked to this once closed-off country to take selfies with the President and stream the event on their social channels.
The glitz of this reception must not draw attention away from the government’s reputation when it comes to freedom of speech within the country. Despite restoring access to previously banned social media channels – YouTube and Facebook, for example – the authorities keep updating the list of prohibited online materials and websites and continue to take contradictory steps when changing media and social media regulations.
In October 2019, two months after the lavish event laid on for the international guests, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications introduced a draft law with new restrictions for online media and bloggers, requiring them to remove “conflicting information” from their platforms within 24 hours of publication. The legislation, since adopted by parliament and signed by the President, makes bloggers and social media moderators responsible for content and comments on their sites or social media pages “that pose a threat to the information security of the state, as well as offensive words, bullying, and false information.”
Even though over the past year President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has repeatedly spoken positively about “representatives of the fourth estate”, the authorities continue to restrict the rights of individuals who peacefully voice opinions that are critical of government policies and practices, particularly online activists and social media bloggers.
The authorities aim at creating a particular image of the country where freedom of expression is respected. To this end, they organised this forum for influencers by inviting a specific category of bloggers.
“Still, independent bloggers who criticise the authorities, especially those who write in Uzbek, sometimes face difficulties. Last year, approximately 15 bloggers who wrote on religious issues were all arrested, and some were convicted to 15 days in detention.”
Persecution of bloggers
In September 2019, Nodirbek Khodzhimatov, a 29-year-old blogger from Andijan was sentenced to 10 days in prison after publishing an open letter on his Facebook page that called on the President to launch an investigation into the alleged corruption of two local officials. A few days before his arrest, the blogger told Radio Ozodlik that a local prosecutor had pressured him to stop writing critical blog posts.
Soon after that, blogger and human rights activist Nafosat Olloshkurova was on 23 September 2019 violently detained by police while monitoring a peaceful protest march from Khorezm to Tashkent and reporting about it on Facebook. She was later forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital in Urgench for two months after a police officer claimed she had “attempted suicide” in detention. Nafosat Olloshkurova was targeted for her legitimate human rights work.
In December 2019 police detained yet another blogger, Abdufatto Nuritdinov (known as Otabek Nuritdinov) in Andijan. On 30 December 2019, the chairman of the Andijan Regional Administrative Court convicted the blogger of “petty hooliganism, slander and insult”, sentenced him to 15 days in prison and fined him 6.5 million soms (700$ - almost three times the official monthly salary). Before being jailed, Otabek Nuritdinov covered social and political events in the region on his Facebook page. According to RFE, he was particularly interested in corruption and the theft of budgetary funds by representatives of the local government of the Andijan region.
The current government and presidential administration recognise the value of being positively represented by the media, much more than their predecessors. Yet, while international bloggers are very much encouraged to cover popular and non-contentious topics such as travel and lifestyle, criticism of the authorities by local actors is still unacceptable, which means that freedom of speech in the country remains severely limited.
The state has changed its tactics in the media sphere. It has abandoned its old methods of suppressing all freedom of expression and has instead adopted new ones to control and direct the media.
“They implemented a whole programme of how to control the blogosphere in Uzbekistan. Their approach has proved to be rather successful – there are only a few truly independent journalists and bloggers today. The list of topics that are no longer taboo has expanded, but there are certain issues that these new media players know they must never cover.”
In Uzbekistan, liability for defamation and insult remains enshrined in the criminal code. In a positive move, a draft law introduced by the Agency of Information and Mass Communications in January 2020 proposes to decriminalise defamation. However, the draft law also intends to expand liability to the online sphere, creating even more restrictions for bloggers and online activists.
States have an obligation under international law to protect journalists and bloggers against any risks arising from their professional activities; these include not only threats to their physical integrity but also violations of their right to freedom of expression and that of others. Defamation, in turn, should be decriminalised and replaced with reasonable and proportional civil responsibility, which should only be imposed after due process, and if it is the least restrictive measure.
The impact of the pandemic
The intent to expand liability to the online sphere is troubling as protecting and guaranteeing freedom of expression has become more critical than ever. In the COVID-19 era, the right to freedom of expression has become more critical than ever as the states are now keener to infringe upon human rights under the pretext of the fight against the pandemic. Uzbekistan already had severe penalties in place, with prison sentences of up to eight years, for the dissemination of information that could harm the state or individuals or cause panic. The language used in the criminal code is vague and broad and has left these legal provisions open to wide interpretation and abuse.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prosecutor General’s Office set up an interagency working group to monitor social media for ‘fake news’ or misleading information on the spread of the infection. Within days this group identified 33 social media accounts that had allegedly spread false information that caused panic and destabilised the situation.
At the end of March, the President introduced even stricter penalties for the dissemination of false information on the spread of the virus, increasing prison sentences from five to a maximum of 10 years in prison. This was a step in the wrong direction at a time when more and more voices said that the authorities in Uzbekistan were trying to conceal the true extent of COVID-19 infections and failures in the government’s response.
It did not take long to persecute the first blogger for a Facebook post perceived as critical of how the authorities were handling COVID-19. In May, Usmonjon Kodirov, a young blogger from Margilan, was detained by a law enforcement official for allegedly being in a public place without a face mask. Ferghana Administrative Court sentenced him to 15 days in detention for “violating quarantine terms, misdemeanour and disobeying police” and fined him 160$.
According to local media, just before his detention, Kodirov had commented approvingly on his Facebook on an article by Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek Service of RFE/RL, reporting medical workers being drafted in to clean the streets in Margilan, Fergana region, in preparation of a visit by the President. The blogger was released after the appeal court reduced his sentence to two days in detention.
For bloggers in Uzbekistan, COVID-19 may well spell the end to what limited freedom of expression they had been allowed to enjoy. As the pandemic subsides, the government and the presidential administration are keen to promote Uzbekistan as a prime destination for travellers with cash to spare. They may not take kindly to critical voices.
Further reading on COVID-19 and freedom of expression in Eastern Europe and Central Asia:
Azerbaijan: Authorities must halt crackdown on dissent and incarceration of activists in conditions prone to the spread of COVID-19 https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur55/2412/2020/en/
Russian Federation: Whistleblower doctor facing reprisals: Tatyana Revva https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur46/2301/2020/en/
Kazakhstan: Further information: Activist sentenced to “restricted freedom”: Alnur Ilyashev https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur57/2593/2020/en/
Eastern Europe and Central Asia confronted with COVID-19: Responses and responsibilities https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur01/2215/2020/en/