"There are some kinds of activities which require a license," spokeswoman Svetlana Artikova said. "Internews Network [the official name of the organization’s Uzbek branch] carried out its activities without a license, and a criminal case was launched against it. Prosecutors are investigating the case now."
Internews Network started facing pressure from the Uzbek authorities in early 2004, and its activities were suspended in the fall of 2004.
At the time, the Uzbek Justice Ministry said the organization had failed to register its logo and did not inform authorities about its activities outside Tashkent, the number of people sitting on its board, and a change of address. This time, the investigation is focusing on the organization's financial operations.
Catherine Eldridge, who heads Internews in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL the group has yet to be officially notified about the opening of a criminal case. “We are very concerned. But as far as a criminal case is concerned, we haven’t been notified officially that there is a criminal case opened against us," she said. "We can’t say anything about it.”
Some observers say the case against Internews is based on little more than the deep desire of the government to see Western-funded groups thrown out of the country.
Oleg Panfilov directs the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and is also the founder of Internews' Russia branch. “I believe the situation with Internews in Uzbekistan is politically motivated," he said. "These accusations about financial violations are ridiculous. As the founder of the Russian branch of Internews, I know very well how this organization and others like it operate in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and other countries. All financial operations are conducted very scrupulously.”
Internews supports projects to develop independent media. In Uzbekistan, the group provides training and support for several independent television stations.
Galima Bukharbaeva, the director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Uzbekistan and a former Internews employee, said the group has played a critical role in fighting Tashkent's notoriously oppressive media restrictions.
“The goals of the organization are very good. They train professional journalists. The organization has trained journalists in Uzbekistan and has served as an eye-opener for the Uzbek people. They’ve engaged in no criminal activity. If [Uzbek authorities] are afraid of strong journalists and organizations which train strong journalists, it is their problem and the problem of the society,” Bukharbaeva said.
Internews has been one of the few sources of independent information in Uzbekistan. But Georgia's Rose Revolution sparked fears in Tashkent that a similar "people-power" movement might emerge with the aim of toppling the current regime under President Islam Karimov.
Uzbek authorities began cracking down on foreign organizations and nongovernmental groups. In early 2004, Uzbek authorities expelled the U.S.-based Open Society Institute, which promotes media and education programs. The government also amended Uzbek legislation on receiving foreign grants, prompting the country's civil-society sector to shrink.
Uzbek authorities may have also feared a repetition in their country of the recent events in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan has the biggest nongovernmental sector of all the Central Asian states, and many local NGOs participated in the March events leading to the ouster of the Bishkek regime.
Panfilov said the rise of popular antigovernment movements in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have left Uzbek authorities increasingly worried. “I do think the case [against Internews’ Uzbek branch] is politically motivated. It must be related to the tense situation in Central Asia -- something that has particularly deepened since the events in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "I think Uzbek authorities are trying to get rid of one more source of [independent] information.”
Catherine Eldridge told RFE/RL she hopes Internews won’t be shut down. “We’ve worked in Uzbekistan for nearly 10 years and we hope to continue working to support the development of mass media in Uzbekistan,” she said.
Eldridge refused to comment on possible political reasons behind the decision by Uzbek authorities to open a criminal case against her organization.
(Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)