In Tashkent’s assault on freedom of speech, Uzbekistan’s foreign journalists have been the lucky ones. They were all kicked out after the massacre in the eastern city of Andijan on May 13, 2005, when government troops shot and killed at least 750 protesters.
Uzbek journalists have fared far worse. In 2007, one was shot to death. Alisher Saipov, just 26 years old, was an Uzbek, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan and a relentless critic of Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov. Many people believe the Karimov regime was behind the killing.
The journalists who are still walking free in Uzbekistan are widely censored and watched carefully by the country’s extensive secret police network. Not only what they write, but what they read is controlled by the regime: The Internet is heavily censored and the authorities block external Web sites that carry any criticism.
The EU seems to believe it can weaken this state intimidation and open up space for a free press with a seminar. Surely the Uzbek government would not oppose freedom of speech, they reckoned, if only someone would properly explain its benefits to the country’s development.
That bubble of naivete was not even burst by the difficulty of setting up this pointless event. The EU had tried to hold this seminar in the Uzbek capital Tashkent before: It was scheduled for late May, but at the last minute the Uzbeks postponed it for two weeks and then indefinitely. Then, instead of the EU-sponsored seminar, the Uzbek authorities held a media conference in June, at which “experts” from different repressive countries competed to prove that freedom of speech brings nothing but chaos, revolution and disaster.
At about the same time, the government was fabricating charges against a well-known journalist, Salijon Abdurahmanov, 58, who wrote for a Web site blocked in Uzbekistan, uznews.net, and worked with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He was arrested on June 7 after police found drugs — almost certainly planted — in the trunk of his car. He was first charged with using drugs, but then the police changed the charge to a more serious one — large-scale drug dealing. On Friday he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. With Uzbek judges, the state gets the result it seeks.
Perhaps Abdurahmanov should be relieved: At least he is not being tortured, like the dissident writer Yusuf Juma, who was jailed in the spring. As a master of critical poems and pamphlets which were mainly about the president and his family, Juma is regarded by the regime as Karimov’s personal enemy. The prison warders told him so. And then they told him they had orders to kill him — slowly and painfully. Juma’s relatives hope the international community will pay attention to him while he is still alive, but the EU is too busy to worry about a wrongly imprisoned writer.
Do EU politicians really believe that the Uzbek authorities will now allow freedom of speech after hearing reports by speakers from Europe, and that journalists will rush to write about the crimes committed by the regime — the torture, abuse and poverty — or the fact that over two million Uzbek children are forcibly removed from schools to pick cotton for two months each year?
Of course, no one in Brussels can really believe the seminar would bring any positive benefits. It was part of an attempt to tick a few boxes so that EU officials can say that Uzbekistan has improved its human rights record and that the sanctions the EU imposed in 2005 can be lifted — for the good of Germany’s military base in the south of the country and a mistaken belief that Uzbekistan has huge reserves of gas.
But the EU’s sanctions were never about human rights or media freedom. They were imposed in 2005 as a response to the government’s mass slaughter in Andijan. The propaganda machines in Tashkent and Brussels might try to spin this media freedom seminar as a sign of real regime improvement. But any journalist living in freedom would report it differently.
(Galima Bukharbaeva, an Uzbek journalist in exile since she personally witnessed the Andijan massacre in May 2005, is editor of uznews.net.)