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Uzbekistan: Contested Virtual Ground

  • Daniel Kimmage

http://gdb.rferl.org/dc60c656-a7bf-4419-a30e-50d09c363f66_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/dc60c656-a7bf-4419-a30e-50d09c363f66_mw800_mh600.jpg (RFE/RL) WASHINGTON, September 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan was justly famed for its tightly controlled media environment even before unrest in Andijon in 2005 spurred the government to tie up loose ends. After Andijon, obstreperous journalists were exiled, and media outlets beyond the authorities' control -- like the BBC and RFE/RL -- were expelled. Now, much of the action has gone virtual, with Uzbek journalists abroad opening critical websites even as pro-government online venues multiply.


A core group of long-standing websites have existed in more or less stable forms for a number of years. These include:


UzA : The state-run news agency offers news in English, Russian, and Uzbek with a focus on official happenings, particularly the actions of President Islam Karimov. Coverage is invariably favorable to the government. Similar in tone, but slightly broader in its range of coverage, is Jahon , an information agency run by the Foreign Ministry (also in English, Russian, and Uzbek).


UzReport.com : This pro-government website focuses on business and economic news in English, Russian, and Uzbek, with political events taking a backseat to upbeat coverage of what the site portrays as Uzbekistan's dynamic commercial environment.

When the Internet emerged in 1990, it brought with it hopes that it would sweep away obstacles to the free flow of information. The reality has proved more ambiguous, with a glut of information sowing confusion, a digital divide underscoring the persistence of economic inequality, and government-imposed filters limiting access.

Ferghana.ru : Run by editor Daniil Kislov in Moscow, Ferghana.ru operates as a news agency with original reports from correspondents in Russia and Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, and as a clearing house for materials originally published elsewhere. Coverage is critical of Russian and Central Asian regimes, with a focus on the economic hardships endured by ordinary citizens (including Central Asian migrant workers in Russia), but not stridently oppositional. Cultural materials leaven the political mix. In English, Russian, and Uzbek.


Erkinyurt : Run by Mohammad Solih's banned Erk Party, Erkinyurt focuses on opposition politics and maintains a bitterly critical view of President Islam Karimov and the Uzbek government. Offers content in English, Russian, Turkish, and Uzbek and links to other Erk sites ( uzbekistanerk.org and muhammadsalih.info).


Harakat : Run by the unregistered Birlik Party (Erk's rival), Harakat features politically oriented daily news updates mainly in Uzbek, with some in Russian. Coverage is generally critical of the Uzbek government with a focus on human rights issues. Links are to the Ezgulik rights group and Birlik.


MuslimUzbekistan : MuslimUzbekistan provides harsh criticism of the Uzbek government in four languages (Arabic, English, Russian, and Uzbek) with a focus on the persecution of Muslims. The website describes its aim as "covering the real state of affairs in the country, revealing and reporting to the international community the facts of the genocide being carried out against Muslims by the current authoritarian, terrorist regime..." While careful to avoid overt support for violence, Muslim Uzbekistan is sympathetic to Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. The site also includes numerous Islamic educational resources in Uzbek.


Several long-standing independent websites have recently stopped functioning. These include Tribune.uz, which posted a message to readers on July 4 informing them that the site, which has been blocked in Uzbekistan since May 2005, will cease operations; Arena, a press freedom site that has not been updated since June 2006; and Free Uzbekistan.


But a number of new websites provide a forum for exiled Uzbek journalists to give their perspective on events in their homeland. Journalists whose articles appear on these sites include a number of former correspondents for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) who have since relocated to the United States and Europe such as Galima Bukharbayeva, Yusuf Rasul, Tulqin Qoraev, and Hurmat Bobojon, as well as former BBC correspondent Matluba Azamatova. Many materials are cross-posted, appearing simultaneously on several of the sites listed below.


Isyonkor : Isyonkor (Rebel) focuses on political news from Uzbekistan and literary works by exiled and out-of-favor writers. It includes a considerable dossier on unrest in Andijon in 2005 and its aftermath. All materials are in Uzbek. The website notes that "the current political regime in Uzbekistan has liquidated rebellions and crushed dissent. But no matter how great the pressure, the extent of dissent and rebellion is greater than the regime can imagine." Opposition materials are supportive of the Erk party and critical of Birlik. Isyonkor lists as its partners the sites Uzbekinfo.org and MediaUz (see below).


Uzbekinfo.org : Uzbekinfo is similar in format and content to Isyonkor, but with materials in Russian as well as Uzbek. The website includes numerous cross-posts from Uznews.net (see below).


Bolg'a : Bolg'a (Hammer) describes itself as an "Uzbek youth movement." The site proclaims, "Let's unite to fight this regime in a peaceful and democratic way! The Bolg'a movement is your movement!" Most articles are political and appear to be cross-posted from Uzbekinfo and other antiregime sites, including MuslimUzbekistan. All materials are in Uzbek.


MediaUz : Describing its as an "independent journalists' site," MediaUz features a mix of original materials and cross-posted articles from other sites in this group, as well as news from outside sources such as the Voice of America's Uzbek Service. All materials are in Uzbek.


Dialog : Opened on June 20, Dialog describes itself as an "independent information and analysis publication created to cover various spheres of life in Uzbekistan and the states of Central Asia." The website's founders note that "at present, there are few Internet publications in Uzbekistan that provide an opportunity for expression, including critical expression, for all journalists." The site's focus is broad, with original materials on social problems and free speech issues, excerpts from the Uzbek official press, and news from outside sites. Materials are available in English, Russian, and Uzbek.


Uznews.net : Uznews.net describes itself as created on July 29 by the Germany-based Uzbekistan Press Freedom Group. The website was originally created under the aegis of IWPR but was dormant for over a year after IWPR's staff was forced to leave Uzbekistan in the crackdown that followed the Andijon unrest. Current materials focus on social and political issues in Uzbekistan. All new articles are in Russian. The link to the Uzbek version of the site still works, but materials there have not been updated since 2005.


A related site is UzMetronom.com, which bills itself as an "independent Internet newspaper" and covers domestic political, social, and economic issues in Uzbekistan. In a July 5 report, Reporters Without Borders stated that UzMetronom was started by the independent journalist Sergei Yezhkov in April and blocked within Uzbekistan by the Uzbek authorities on June 26. The website's tone is critical, but not stridently so, and the focus is on the internal dynamics of the Karimov regime, with considerable attention to personnel changes. The site is entirely in Russian and materials are either signed by Yezhkov or are anonymous. Like Dialog, UzMetronom includes a short, frequently updated overview of the Uzbek official press.


New pro-government sites have sprung up as well:


Press-uz.info : Press-uz.info describes itself as a news agency belonging to the Interjournalist club. It presents content in English, Russian, and Uzbek that is favorable to the Uzbek government yet varies by language. For example, the website's Analysis section recently ran an AFP story in English with a critical take on the Uzbek government's actions against U.S.-based Newmont Mining . The story did not appear in either the Russian or Uzbek versions of the site. Meanwhile, the Uzbek version of the site contains more ideologically charged materials, including long articles from the Uzbek official press about the need for Uzbekistan to follow its own path, and exposes of the West's nefarious plans to foment revolution in Central Asia.


Gazeta.uz : The website description says that Gazeta.uz was created "with the help of the public foundation for the support and development of independent print media and news agencies." It features original materials and reprints from Uzbek official sources in English, Russian, and Uzbek, as well as pro-government articles from such sources as Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A typical example of the latter genre is an August 7 article from China's "People's Daily" titled "U.S. scheming for 'Great Central Asia' strategy," which takes a negative view of U.S. involvement in the region. Gazeta.uz and Press-uz.info link to each other and frequently post each other's materials. They also contain links to the nominally independent, but practically pro-government, sites of the Uzbek-language newspaper "Hurriyat"and the Russian-language news agency Turkiston Press.


If the virtual polarization of Uzbek news and commentary is clear, what remains unclear is whether alternative sources of information are actually available to those who live in Uzbekistan. For one, official statistics put the number of Internet users at well below 1 million in a country of 26 million. Internet censorship is another factor. As IWPR reported on August 17, and Ferghana.ru reported on August 9, Uzbekistan's security services are actively blocking websites they dislike, a category that includes virtually all of the above-listed sites that publish anything critical of the government. And press watchdog Reporters Without Borders has listed Uzbekistan as one of the world's 15 Internet "black holes."


When the Internet emerged in 1990, it brought with it hopes that it would sweep away obstacles to the free flow of information. The reality has proved more ambiguous, with a glut of information sowing confusion, a digital divide underscoring the persistence of economic inequality, and government-imposed filters limiting access. But the medium is still young and, as it moves into its adolescence, Uzbekistan looks set to be one of its key testing grounds.

Internet In The Former Soviet Union

(AFP)

BREAKING THE NEWS: In 2000, Internews and the Center for Democracy and Technology established the Global Internet Policy Initiative (GIPI) to promote an open, democratic, and user-controlled Internet in developing countries. Throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, GIPI has worked to bring together local stakeholders and advocate policy reforms that will support development of the Internet as a tool of democratization, economic growth, and human development.
On May 3, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion of these issues. Participants included PARVINA IBODOVA, chairman of the Civil Internet Policy Initiative and GIPI Coordinator; BOGDAN MANOLEA, Executive Director of the Romanian Association for Technology and Internet (APTI), an independent NGO that works to promote human rights in the digital environment and support digital civil rights in Romanian society; and experts working in the Internet policy development area from Belarus and Uzbekistan. Internet-policy advocates from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine also took part in the discussion.


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