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Uzbekistan: International Groups Blast Tashkent's 'Media Freedom Conference'

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> The OSCE's representative on media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, was among the few foreign experts allowed to attend the conference (OSCE) In April, the European Union agreed to hold a conference on media freedom in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

The idea was that major international rights groups -- including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the International Crisis Group, and the Open Society Institute -- would attend and contribute to a frank exchange on a topic that generally makes the region's leaders squeamish.

At the last minute, however, Uzbek officials scrapped the plans for an EU-Uzbek conference on civil society. Instead they staged an "Uzbek version" of the gathering that participants and would-be participants said fell far short of Brussels' goals.

International rights advocates have called this week's conference a "complete farce," and they accused Uzbek officials of playing a trick on the European Union that threw into question its policy of engaging Tashkent's authoritarian regime.

Uzbekistan had pledged itself to the event during a meeting with EU officials on April 29. That was the same day that EU members agreed to maintain a freeze on sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed after civilian protesters were killed in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005.

Originally slated for late May, the conference was pushed back to June 9-10. And the international invitations to groups like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders were simply forgotten or their attendance otherwise precluded.

Andrew Stroehlein, a media director for the International Crisis Group think tank, is one of more than a dozen foreign participants proposed by the EU to attend the seminar. But Stroehlein and others were unable to travel to Tashkent due to changes the Uzbeks made to the conference's agenda, dates, and participants list.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Stroehlein called the gathering a "propaganda show" for the Uzbek government and accused Tashkent of playing "a trick on the EU."

"This conference as it exists now is a complete farce," Stroehlein said. "The original intention was to have a EU-Uzbekistan meeting, fact, it was the promise of the EU-Uzbekistan meetings [and] one of the justifications why the European Union suspended its sanctions against Uzbekistan in April."

He said the "alternative meeting" demonstrates "that Uzbekistan is just not a reliable partner for the EU."

Elsa Vidal of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, who was supposed to attend the meeting as drawn up, says her organization was "outraged" by Uzbekistan's behavior.

"On the other hand, it shows quite precisely what was the position of the Uzbek authorities is on the question of a dialogue on human rights," Vidal says. "I think there is nothing more to expect from this cooperation. The Uzbek authorities are not ready to change, and we are not willing to be played like fools anymore."

The impact on the conference itself was clear.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on media freedom, Miklos Haraszti, was among the few foreign experts allowed to attend the conference, which was his first visit to Uzbekistan.

Haraszti called it "regrettable" that many foreign invitees were unable to attend the meeting, and said others were "handpicked" by Uzbek authorities. "While the conference seems to be quite a strange composition of speakers, most of whom are in favor of the state presence in the [Uzbek] media, I was given the possibility of a keynote speech where I very clearly [spoke] about the jointly accepted commitments of all the 56 nations of the OSCE," he said.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Tashkent, Haraszti urged Uzbek authorities to free up the country's media. He said the conference "should translate into actual reforms," including making it easier for media outlets to register themselves and liberalizing the Penal Code, which he described as "very severe."

Haraszti also called on officials in Tashkent to release all prisoners of conscience.

Haraszti expressed hope that his attendance at the conference might signal a start to the liberalization of the Uzbek media.

The International Crisis Group's Stroehlein is more skeptical. He calls the conference a clear sign that the Uzbek authorities have no interest in a discussion of issues like media freedom and democratization.

"If they did want to have a discussion, I would be in Tashkent [now] along with other NGO representatives who have been critical in the past," Stroehlein says. "We did expect an opportunity to at least air the views that, of course, Uzbek journalists cannot say in Tashkent or anywhere else in that country. And there is a complete lack of freedom of expression, and people are locked up for expressing their views, and these policies are very dangerous not only for Uzbekistan, but the region."

In a joint statement issued on June 9, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Institute, and Reporters Without Borders called on the Uzbek authorities to release imprisoned journalists, stop intimidating those still working independently, allow foreign media to register and work in the country, and end censorship of Uzbek media outlets.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Alisher Siddikov contributed to this report