Scorched earth: media in Uzbekistan between 2005 and 2016
Under the rule of President Islam Karimov (1991-2016), the media in Uzbekistan experienced significant pressure. The total domination of the media environment by censorship and threats to journalists meant there was no freedom of expression in the media at all. Only a few websites such as Uznews.net, Ferghana.ru, and Neweurasia.net were brave enough to publish critical stories, and their offices were abroad. None of these websites were registered in the country. But all of them were blocked and only a few people were able to read it using a VPN (virtual private network). It was extremely dangerous to write for these outlets and many journalists faced threats or had to emigrate outside of Uzbekistan to seek safety. Local TV, radio, and newspapers were sterile in terms of criticism during this time.
A 2006 Human Rights Watch report summarised the media environment in Uzbekistan at the time saying that ‘the government continues its practice of controlling, intimidating, and arbitrarily suspending or interfering with the work of civil society groups, the media, human rights activists, and opposition political parties. In particular, repression against independent journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition members increased this year.’
2005 should be considered a watershed moment because, after the Andijan Events in 2005, the media environment was cleansed of any remaining opposition. Foreign journalists were banned and websites were blocked. I entered the National University of Uzbekistan Faculty of Journalism in 2004 and was a witness to these events. ‘You cannot discuss the question of freedom of speech in this building’, as Dean of the Faculty Kudrat Irnazarov once said. A generation of journalists were raised in such an environment, and it is important to understand this context when examining the present day situation.
A shift of the media landscape in Uzbekistan between 2016 and 2020
The new President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was elected in 2016 after the death of Karimov. Surprisingly for all he chose a course to let people speak more freely. It was not announced like ‘now you could speak’, but people started to write increasingly critical posts on Facebook or via Telegram messenger, and there were no repressions. Step by step, you were able to see critical posts in private online media outlets too. I stepped up in the process in May 2017. I was not sure that it was ‘allowed’ to write yet but was persuaded to by the Editor-in-Chief at Gazeta.uz to try.
My first critical story was published in May 2017 and it was well received. People were calling me and saying: ‘We can’t believe it is online. Should be a new era’. We realised that it was a success and we had none of the ‘consequences’ as it could happen in Karimov times. No phone calls, no threats. That was the beginning, and from that point, I was constantly trying to publish more and more stories.
The following month, President Mirziyoyev for the first time confirmed his intention to develop freedom of speech and blamed the media for the lack of criticism saying “it is a pity that our media still don’t reflect all problems which we have in our lives, yet we need to strengthen a spirit of criticism and self-criticism in our society.” From this time journalists and bloggers became an integral part of the so-called ‘Uzbek Thaw’. Reforms were coming in thick and fast and people were demanding more and more information. As a result of the ongoing process of liberalisation, Uzbekistan jumped from 169th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017 to 156th in 2020. It was also excluded from the ‘blacklist’ of countries, deemed to have a ‘very serious situation’, and put on the ‘red list’ for countries with a ‘difficult situation’.
Waiting for consequences and media boom
A new liberalisation sparked a boom of online media. From 2016 through 2019 the Internet was the main platform of debates and critical publications. Many new media outlets were opened and competition between them increased. Daryo.uz and Kun.uz became the main competitors in the Uzbek language, while Gazeta.uz dominates in Russian, especially among liberal-oriented parts of the society.
While there is no censorship anymore like in the past (telephone calls from high ranking officials with an (unofficial) order to take down an unwanted article), the question of self-censorship continues to exist. Many editors and journalists asking themselves: ‘Where is the boundary? What remains a taboo?’ And there is no strict answer. Every media outlet has to decide for themselves. As far as I can see, major corruption investigations could be a problem for a journalist and could lead to ‘bad consequences’. However, it is a question of brave people to start, to lead and to try.
Right now, there is no strict and open pressure on media anymore. Imprisoned journalists were released, and no journalist or blogger has received a long-term prison sentence in the last three years (except a few minor cases with 15 days detention). However, there are some threats and trends which make journalists uncomfortable. For example, a conflict between Kun.uz and the Mayor of Tashkent Jakhongir Artikhodjaev. In November 2019 he threatened journalists in a private conversation. This happened after a deputy in one of districts of Tashkent insulted Kun.uz’s journalist and smashed his camera. Artikhodjaev responded that “you could disappear and nobody will find you”. An audio recording of this conversation was later published. In a few cases regional governors have also threatened journalists, sometimes even with death. It mostly happens in Ferghana Valley, where the Governor of Ferghana district, Shukhrat Ganiev, in December 2019 asked Ravshan Kurbanov, a Governor of Kuva district, during a telephone call if he had already read a “funeral praying” for an unnamed blogger or not. This blogger was posting about protests in Kuva (people had blocked a road because of a lack of gas and electricity). Ganiev instructed Kurbanov, that instead of “fixing problems” he should “read a funeral praying”.
Despite these unpleasant cases, there has been no significant sign that the course of the government to provide freedom of speech will be changed. However, there is always a question: is it an experiment, or it is forever? A universal fear that this situation could be turned 180 degrees back into the Karimov times always exists among journalists and bloggers, even if there is no reason to have this fear in the present moment. This fear is a cause of self-censorship. Self-censorship is also a consequence of the Karimov era. Many journalists just cannot change their mind-set and they continue to work as they worked before the ‘thaw’.
Moreover, the boom of online media has highlighted the significant lack of qualified people. This is also a heritage of the Karimov era. It was never prestigious to be a journalist before, nor was it profitable. Today online media can offer decent salaries, but there are only a few people who could create honest and professional content. This lack of human resources dramatically affects the media and prevents the market from enlarging.
TV and radio environment
While online media is the locomotive of criticism in Uzbekistan, TV, and radio are far behind. These spheres were less affected by the ‘thaw’ than the Internet. It is true to say that TV dominates the media market and has the widest coverage in the country while Internet consumers are mostly situated in major cities. According to the latest poll by Internews, 77 per cent of people between the ages of 30 and 45 got their news from TV. 23 per cent trust online websites and 18 per cent trust social networks. State-controlled TV channels are still old-fashioned, very cautious in their criticism and avoid any ‘conflict topics’. Those TV channels such as Uzbekistan 24 and Toshkent act as an instrument of state propaganda. Their attitudes toward what should be shown on TV have not changed since Karimov’s time. Mostly their news highlights development, prosperity, and praises the country’s leaders.
However, a few private TV-channels, taking advantage of digital broadcasting opening up the number of possible channels, have started to attract more viewers and compete with state channels. ZOR TV, Sevimli, Milliy, and Mening Yurtim produce entertaining shows and broadcast movies and TV series, while Uzreport TV concentrates on reports and high-quality journalism rather than entertainment.
Despite this, the local TV market has not developed as much as online media and has not moved towards freedom of speech values. Also, Russian TV still dominates the market and people prefer to watch it via cable or antenna. The local TV has the potential to develop as soon as producers are able to buy and adapt major international shows and projects or create something unique which will attract viewers.
For years, many critical websites have been blocked in Uzbekistan. Mostly it happened in 2005. This legacy of Karimov initially remained under the next president, and it took some time before they began to be unblocked. Some of them were unblocked in 2017, some of them in 2018 and finally by May 2019 most of them were unblocked.
A dangerous step backwards happened in September 2018 when Facebook and YouTube were blocked for users in Uzbekistan. Officially the government explained it as a ‘temporary problem on their side’, blaming Facebook and YouTube for problems with a connection. Both websites were unblocked in February 2019, right after the former Chief of the National Security Service, Ikhtiyor Abdullaev, was dismissed and put under arrest. These two events were never officially connected but Facebook and YouTube were never blocked again.
Finally, in May 2019 most of the websites had been unblocked, including Ferghana.ru, Uzmetronom.com, AsiaTerra.info, Eurasianet.com, Voice of America, BBC Uzbek and Deutsche Welle. This decision was hailed by Reporters Without Borders. However, the only major website which is still blocked is Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of RFE/RL. While the website of RFE/RL works normally, only the Uzbek service page is inaccessible from Uzbekistan. The reason has not been officially explained.
The Agency, the Mass Media Fund, and new legislation
An inspiring signal to the mass media happened in November 2018. Komil Allamjonov, a former press-secretary of President Mirziyoyev, was appointed to the position of chairman of the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC). Known as a liberal person he replaced a former pro-Karimov chairman Laziz Tangriev. But what was a more important signal is that Saida Mirziyoyeva, a daughter of the President was appointed as his first deputy. In patriarchal Central Asian society, this step means a lot. Both Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva proclaimed that they would protect the rights of journalists and bring attention to the rights of bloggers too.
The new Agency started to develop legislation that would protect journalists and provide more rights to them. Corrections to the Law Codex offered by the Agency removed the risk of prison for defamation and slander. This is a big problem for modern journalism in Uzbekistan. While ‘traditional’ ways of repressing the media are not accessible to elites and businessmen anymore, suing a journalist for defamation and slander is a new trend. It was the right decision to protect journalists from prison terms, but still it is a problem. Every court case costs an enormous amount of money for a media outlet even if they win due to legal costs and it could lead to bankruptcy if they lost. There have been no such cases of bankruptcy yet in the Mirziyoyev-era but the media society has a fear of this. Lawyers usually do not work pro-bono and fines for defamation and slander are still high. In the environment of the ‘sick’ judiciary system in Uzbekistan which is still highly corrupted, this is a dangerous trend that potentially could hurt freedom of speech.
In February 2020 both Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva decided to quit the Agency. Citing that they aimed to concentrate on non-profit work which would allow them more opportunities. A new Public Fund for the Support and Development of National Mass Media was created and popular Uzbek blogger Khushnudbek Khudayberdiev was appointed as chairman. Allamjonov and Mirziyoeva joined the Board of Trustees that oversees the strategic direction of the fund. The new fund should accumulate donor funds (including the state budget) to support projects in education, news content and should continue work to simplify and improve media legislation. A group of popular bloggers and journalists has entered the Public Council of the fund to control its day to day activities with Lola Islamova (Anhor.uz) appointed as chairman.
Bloggers on the rise
From the very beginning, the Agency put a lot of attention to raising the status of bloggers. And there was a reason. From the very first days of the ‘thaw’ bloggers were the first to start reporting honestly. While traditional media was slow to change their minds, bloggers were brave and gained the trust of the audience. Uzbekistan is unique in that most of its blogging is concentrated around Telegram messenger. In general, Uzbekistan is second in the world for Telegram users. And with its pretty secure environment and great interface blogging has flourished. Popular bloggers who write in the Uzbek language could have up to a few hundred thousand subscribers, such as the channels of Davletov, Khushnudbek Khudayberdiev, and Troll.uz. Russian-writing bloggers have up to ten thousand subscribers each with Effekt Makarenko, Insider.uz and Nablyudeniya Pod Chinaroy among the most popular blogs.
A project of legislation to provide bloggers the same rights to information as journalists was announced in August 2019 but has not been finished or signed. Currently, bloggers are not named in any media law. The law on digital information mentions them stating that a blogger is responsible for his/her content and should not publish anything which contradicts current laws. Even though channels on Telegram and Facebook page are not mentioned in any Uzbek legislation and are not a subject of Uzbek law, court cases where bloggers are accused of defamation and slander are a common thing in modern Uzbekistan. For example, in December 2019 blogger Abdufato Nuritdinov from Andijan was arrested and got 15 days of isolation in prison for insult, defamation and using swear words directed at a local district mayor, Erkinjon Yakubov. In another case in February 2020 the most popular Russian-language Facebook group ‘Potrebitel.uz’ was sued by a businessmen for defamation, but they won the case.
However, bloggers are continuing to gain strength with successful monetisation in 2019. Some popular bloggers are efficient in advertising and businessmen prefer to cooperate with them because they have people’s interest and trust. A groundbreaking event in 2019 happened on August 27th, when Mirziyoyev for the first time met a group of local and foreign bloggers in Samarkand and shot a famous selfie with them. “I see among you our bloggers too. I am proud of that. You should know that the president will always support you”, said Mirziyoyev.
Uzbek media representatives are proud of their current work during the pandemic. From the very first days of quarantine and lockdown, a group of 72 most popular media leaders and bloggers united and created a Telegram channel called Coronavirus.info on March 15th. Among them are journalists from Gazeta.uz, Kun.uz, Daryo.uz, TV and radio channels, and popular bloggers Khushundbek Khudayberdiev, Nozim Safari, Troll.uz, Feruzkhan Yakubkhodjaev and others. Every day it posts important information, fights fake news and provides citizens with an opportunity to get trusted information about the situation. The channel is supported by the Mass Media Fund, the government and its related offices. All leaders and bloggers daily discuss a strategy and make decisions to step up together, combining efforts. In a few weeks Coronavirus.info got 1.4 million subscribers which is a huge number and a successful result acknowledged by many other countries who are trying other tactics. This achievement was acknowledged by Telegram Messenger, and on April 3rd they have launched a special page to gather verified Telegram coronavirus information channels from other joining countries. To this day, such verified channels exist in Cuba, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Togo, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Together with this, every day during the pandemic private TV channel Uzreport TV was able to broadcast live briefings. More than five to six times per day officials from different offices gave updates and answered people’s questions. These videos are immediately uploaded to the Telegram channel too, keeping most of the population in the loop; TV and Telegram is a perfect combination in modern Uzbekistan. However, many media outlets had to minimise their costs and let go of staff because of the pandemic. A possible economic crisis is coming and it will hit the media if the demand for advertisements decreases.
Nikita Makarenko is a journalist, blogger and TV producer. Born in Tashkent, Nikita graduated from the National University of Uzbekistan in 2011 and started his career on radio. He worked for various local and international online outlets, in 2017 he joined one of the most popular Uzbek media outlets, ‘Gazeta.uz’, where he worked until May 2020. Currently, he runs his show at the ‘Uzreport TV’ channel and works as a blogger. In 2019, he taught a class on propaganda theory at Oberlin College (U.S.).
 Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan: Events of 2005, World Report 2006, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2006/country-chapters/uzbekistan
 New Reporter, Test ‘How old are on you on the Internet?’ and study results, April 2020, https://newreporter.org/2020/04/23/test-skolko-vam-let-v-internete-i-rezultaty-issledovaniya/
 RSF, Uzbekistan unblocks many independent news sites, May 2019, https://rsf.org/en/news/uzbekistan-unblocks-many-independent-news-sites
 The author is a member of the Public Council.
 This is a personal blog of the author.