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Uzbekistan: Helsinki Watch Says Government Violates Media Freedom

By Dina Weinstein

Washington, 23 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - An international human rights organization says government-sponsored media censorship in Uzbekistan persists despite a two-year-old pro-free speech attitude.

"Despite the government of Uzbekistan's professed commitment to freedom of the press -- made both explicitly and publicly over the past two years -- state censorship of the media remains pervasive and intimidation of journalists is rampant," says the organization Human Rights Watch-Helsinki.

Its charges are contained in a new report entitled, "Uzbekistan: Violations of Media Freedom, Journalism and Censorship in Uzbekistan,"

The 16-page report says Uzbekistan has relaxed controls on foreign media and their correspondents. However, the report says Russian media have been "particularly hard hit...with reductions in rebroadcasting of Russian programs and in the accesibility of Russian newspapers."

Uzbekistan's policies, the report says, give mixed messages challenging journalists to be more critical and then funding censors who work in the very same building as the print, radio and television media in the capital of Tashkent.

The report expresses particular concern with Uzbekistan's direct responsibility "for the perpetuation of censorship, firings, harassment and intimidation of journalists, and for creating an atmosphere that is so repressive that journalists often censor themselves before their work ever reaches a formal censor."

Human Rights Watch-Helsinki monitored major media in the Uzbek and Russian languages in Uzbekistan for ten months. The findings "revealed little substantive critical analysis of domestic affairs and no criticism of government policy, common indicators of free speech."

The report explains censors must scrutinize and approve every news story meant for publication or broadcast. Journalists who have deviated from the rules, the report says, "have been expelled from their country, fired from their jobs, or threatened with dismissal, and on occasion beaten or threated with violence to them or their families by the security services."

Opposition newspapers, the report found, have been banned and "indviduals implicated in their possession or distribution within the country are detained and arrested."

Human Right Watch-Helsinki charges Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov with sending mixed messages to the press allowing the principal of free media but at the same time sanctioning the practice of free media.

To give the government guidance, the report lists a series of recommendations, urging officials to take short-term steps to demonstrate its good will in striving toward genuine improvements in its freedom of speech record. In particular, the report recommends the government of Uzbekistan "immediately abolish" state-controlled censorship "and publicly condemn its past censorship functions."

The organization calls on the government to "cease immediately the practice of questioning, surveying, harassing and otherwise intimidating journalists, and ensure that they are not officially penalized or harassed for the peaceful expression of their opinions."

The report urges Uzbekistan to "allow the pubic in Uzbekistan free access to all media sources, including Russian print and broadcast media."

It is up to the international community, the report says, to condemn media infringement in Uzbekistan and monitor the government's efforts to comply with its obligations. If specific goals are not met, says the report, international donors who offer assistance to journalists and the free media in Uzbekistan should be prepared to withdraw their funds.