Last week, Uzbekistan announced that the number of people in the country who could access the Internet during 2002 had reached 275,000, double the number who could log on in 2001. That news was accompanied by reports that several websites posting antigovernment articles had been blocked in Uzbekistan, but not before the stories were widely disseminated. The articles have become "must-read" material in Uzbekistan and beyond.
Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In 2001, Uzbekistan had 137,000 Internet users. Last year, that number doubled to 275,000. But as Internet use rises in this Central Asian country, access to controversial information remains virtually nonexistent. This has become especially true following the blocking of a number of non-Uzbek websites after a series of provocative articles was posted on centrasia.ru, sparking lively debate.
The first of the centrasia.ru articles was posted at the start of January. The author was identified as "Usman Khaknazarov," a political analyst. It is unclear whether Khaknazarov is a pseudonym for a single writer or a group of contributors. Some Uzbek websites like uzland.uz refer to the author as "Khaknazarov and Company," indicating that they think more than one person is behind the provocative reports.
The articles contain allegations of corruption and nepotism in the Uzbek government. They also purport to give firsthand accounts of conversations between Uzbek President Islam Karimov and government officials and detail Karimov's efforts to maintain a firm grip on his power. The articles also cast aspersions on many current and former government employees.
Knowledge of the Khaknazarov articles appears widespread, at least in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Many Uzbeks admit to hearing about the reports, but offer different opinions as to their legitimacy.
"I have heard about Usman Khaknazarov's articles. But it is difficult to say anything about whether what's written in them is true," said one man. "I think time will tell."
"These [articles] should be seen as a first attempt to overthrow the dictatorship," said another. "The information in these articles is the product of a lot of preparation and deep thought."
But another man said, "To be honest, I think it is a bit early to say anything for sure."
There are now four Khaknazarov articles. Their claims are often inconsistent, lending credence to suggestions that more than one author is behind the reports. A single article, for example, might claim that Karimov is torn between Uzbekistan's powerful clan structures in one section while portraying him in the next as an iron-fisted dictator who answers to no one. Much of the content could be considered libelous by Western press standards.
Sherzod Kudratkhodjayev is the representative of Uzbekistan's presidential press center. He said the articles were prompted by political jealousy. "One thing is obvious: that the current changes and renovations in Uzbekistan, the independent foreign policy of the Uzbek leadership, Uzbekistan's success on the international scene within the last two to three years, and its...position on certain issues are not liked by everyone. I think certain forces are interested in waging an information attack in Uzbekistan," Kudratkhodjayev said.
The Khaknazarov articles are not the only assault being launched on the Internet. A number of Uzbek websites have begun a counterattack. Uzland.uz, run by webmaster Odil Ruzaliyev, published a response last week saying, "an information war against Uzbekistan has started on the Internet." It also notes the leaving of "Turkmen footprints," an apparent allusion to accusations from Ashgabat that Uzbekistan might have had a hand in the November assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.
The Khaknazarov articles sparked a lively cyber-debate on centrasia.ru, with readers expressing belief and skepticism in equal measure. But the controversial content appears to have drawn the ire of the Uzbek government. Centrasia.ru and other, mainly Russian, news sites have systematically been blocked in Uzbekistan.
Although some Uzbeks are still able to access the sites through circuitous means, centrasia.ru and others have been largely unavailable for the past two weeks.
Muhammad Salih is a prominent member of the Uzbek opposition and head of the banned Erk Party of Uzbekistan. He told RFE/RL the true identity of Khaknazarov is ultimately unimportant. What is more significant, he said, is that the articles -- and the debate they have inspired -- demonstrate that the people of Uzbekistan are hungry for information that the government refuses to permit. "Maybe Usman Khaknazarov is one person or his articles are a product of joint efforts by a group of people. But this is not important. What is important is that these articles show that people inside Uzbekistan are longing for the truth. That's why these articles are very valuable," Salih said.
As the number of Internet users continues to grow in Uzbekistan, it appears likely that the desire for information -- unsubstantiated or not -- will increase as well.
(Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)