“Many suggest I shut down the media, but I won’t do it,” Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in February 2023. He was once again assuring audiences that he “likes the breath of freedom,” while conceding it makes it “harder to work.” Two years earlier, Mirziyoyev even proposed punishing officials for censorship, intimidation, and interference in the work of the media. His proposal, however, has never been implemented in practice.
It’s not clear who is suggesting to the president that he should “shut down the media,” but recent increasing constraints on freedom of speech, show that they – whoever they are – are making significant progress in this direction. In March, more than 40 journalists and bloggers appealed to the president in an open letter about the “hidden but harsh censorship” they constantly face.
In spite of Mirziyoyev’s professed tolerance of greater press freedom, the government has recently adopted a series of restrictive amendments that have negatively impacted independent journalists and bloggers. The government has also retained tight control over public information, with traditional news sources and much of social media dominated by pro-government journalists and bloggers.
Additionally, the crime of “disseminating false information” in the media or online was added to the criminal code in 2020. A year later, new amendments also introduced a criminal provision for “public calls to mass disturbances and violence against citizens,” giving the authorities a broader remit to clamp down on freedom of expression. Other amendments introduced “public insult or defamation” against the president online as a criminal offense carrying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
A new report by Uzbek Forum for Human Rights analyzes the cases of 10 bloggers and civic activists in Uzbekistan who have been subjected to intimidation and prosecution by the government as a result of their public activity or the exercising of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, or association. In addition to the concerns posed to these fundamental rights, the report also identifies violations of these individuals’ rights to a fair trial, as well as concerns over their right to be free from arbitrary detention.
Undoubtedly, with Mirziyoyev’s coming to power in 2016, the scope of permitted criticism of the government was expanded, perhaps one of most positive changes in the “New Uzbekistan.” Simultaneously, with the development of social media, hundreds of popular bloggers and citizen reporters emerged, who became important critical voices in their communities. To silence uncomfortable voices, local authorities, with the help of law enforcement agencies, began to subject bloggers to various kinds of threats. Administrative or criminal cases were opened against them for insult and slander and they were punished with huge fines. Dozens of bloggers have been subjected to administrative arrests on trumped-up charges of religious extremism, just for expressing their opinions.
The case of Otabek Sattoriy, a blogger from the remote city of Termez, is a telling example of how easily an unwanted activist can be disposed of. He was convicted in May 2021 of slander and extortion and sentenced to six-and-a-half years imprisonment. No material evidence of extortion was presented either at the investigation or at the trial. The hokim (city mayor) of Termez, who testified in court that Sattoriy engaged in extortion was himself recently arrested and charged with a number of serious crimes, including embezzlement and corruption. Despite an appeal, the Supreme Court upheld Sattoriy’s sentence.
Sattoriy is currently serving his sentence in a strict prison colony in Navoi where another blogger, Fozilkhoja Orifkhojaev, is also being held. Orifkhojaev was sentenced in January 2022 to seven-and-a-half years in prison for one post on his Facebook page in which he disputed whether Muslims should celebrate Christian holidays. This alone was considered by the court to qualify as an extremist religious view.
In May 2022, a member of Uzbek human rights organization Ezgulik was able to meet Sattoriy and Orifkhojaev in the prison colony. Sattoriy said that had he believed in Mirziyoyev’s policies and became a blogger, but ended up a victim of corruption.
The level of harassment and the number of arrests and threats against activists have increased over the past two years. In recent cases, several bloggers have announced that they are ending their activities and closing their social media channels, as happened with three bloggers from Kashkadarya who were given five days’ detention in late May by a court for allegedly disobeying traffic police officers.
In such an environment, Mirziyoyev’s calls for journalists to “criticize” the authorities and not be afraid because “the president is behind you” appear at the very least irresponsible, given the absence of protections that put those who believed in him at risk.
Ironically, reports of threats against bloggers and journalists intensified just before the April 30 referendum on the new constitution, which has been showcased as strengthening the rights and freedoms of Uzbek citizens. Anora Sadykova, a journalist and founder for the popular Rost 24 website, announced that she had been forced to delete an article about corruption in the oil and gas sector due to threats. In April she announced her resignation under unrelenting pressure on her family and colleagues.
The recent case of blogger Elmurod Odil from Kashkadarya, who has been repeatedly subjected to administrative arrests, is illustrative in demonstrating the routine lack of any protection from arbitrary application of the law. On May 26, Odil arrived at the place of a meeting between the Yakkabag district hokim and local farmers. When Odil tried to make a video recording of the meeting, the hokim, Lutfiddin Abdullaev, physically attacked him and took his phone. The police were then called and the blogger told his lawyer that the police beat him and falsified an administrative case against him. The next day, the district court ruled that the blogger was guilty of hooliganism and disobeying the authorities and sentenced him to 15 days of detention.
In a video message immediately after his release, Odil said that there was no way to get justice. He appealed to Mirziyoyev: “You have repeatedly called on us to write about the problems of society, but if you can’t protect us why are you calling on us to do this?”
The increasing arrests of activists is a clear message from those who are calling on the president to “shut down the media.” As journalist Shokir Sharif told Uzbek Forum, the limitations on freedom of speech are difficult to navigate. “On the one hand they say ‘enjoy the freedom of speech,’ on the other hand there are apparently people in power who would like to return to the past.”
This is not the first time Uzbekistan has experienced a thaw in the atmosphere for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights. In the early 2000s, dozens of offices of major international media and human rights organizations were registered in Uzbekistan, but following the deadly uprising in the city of Andijan in 2005, this period of thaw gave way to a glacial frost. Media outlets were closed down and rights defenders and journalists were rounded up and imprisoned or fled the country. Some of them did not survive the brutal conditions of notorious Uzbek jails.
Today, although there is much more freedom of speech compared to the Karimov era, these ongoing attacks on bloggers and civil society activists show an alarming deteriorating dynamic. Time will tell whether Mirziyoyev is more committed to cementing a legacy as a great reformer or as a man who merely secured his own authoritarian status quo.