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Central Asia: How To Survive As A Journalist In Uzbekistan

As Uzbekistan prepares for parliamentary elections on 26 December, its national press corps must figure out a way to write about the race without uncovering any unseemly details. In a long article on the website of the Committee for Freedom of Speech and Expression of Uzbekistan ( published on 29 June, an author identified only as D. Morfius, a likely pseudonym, offers a unique peek at the unwritten rules for writing -- or rather not writing -- news in Uzbekistan. Uzbek journalists face a special challenge: They must express confidence about the inevitable victory of good (the forces of President Islam Karimov) over evil, while at the same time avoid declaring that the result of the election is known well in advance.

As Morfius described it, journalism in Uzbekistan requires a well-developed sense of restraint. While some subjects, such as criticisms of Karimov, are predictably taboo, others are less obvious. For example, articles about Uzbekistan's neighbors, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, appear so rarely that they would almost appear to be banned. Why? According to Morfius, "Because their economies have outstripped Uzbekistan's in terms of economic development, which raises the question of why is Uzbekistan's government so untalented?" It is forbidden to write about other countries' economic achievement or to report that Uzbekistan has one of the lowest per capita rates of foreign direct investment in the CIS. Integration among CIS countries is also off limits as a topic because its discussion might highlight how isolated Uzbekistan has become. Criticism of Uzbekistan's one ally, benefactor, and protector, the United States, is, of course, precluded.
While there are many subjects that journalists know to steer clear of, there are others where they must tread carefully, paying careful attention to details.

Talking about how people actually live is also problematic, according to Morfius. President Karimov can talk to journalists "for hours about democracy, its gains and achievements," but newspapers should not report on such "prosaic" things as poverty, unemployment, and the months-long backlog of unpaid wages and pensions. According to Morfius, the "size of the average wage in Uzbekistan is treated as a state secret, and such a concept as a basket of consumer goods does not exist in principle...because then it would be revealed that the majority of the population lives belong the minimum survival rate."

Statistics about other negative social phenomena are similarly unwelcome. The suicide rate, the number of homeless people, the crime rate, the number of abortions, the rate of venereal disease infection -- all of these numbers are simply not published. Other data -- for example, the cost of the annual celebration for Uzbekistan's independence day or the number of people who work for the Interior Ministry or the intelligence service (SNB) -- is so closely guarded that it appears to have the status of a military secret.

While there are many subjects that journalists know to steer clear of, there are others where they must tread carefully, paying careful attention to details. Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as meetings between heads of states requires attention to word order. If Karimov meets with another president, then the sentence should begin "Uzbek President...." That way, as Russian grammar dictates, his title is capitalized, while that of his colleague is in lower case.

While none of these strictures are written down (as are "temnyky" in Ukraine), journalists in Uzbekistan have a clear sense of what they can and cannot write, according to Morfius. It's fortunate that they have this sixth sense, since the supplementary documents to the law on the defense of state secrets, which explain what is secret, are themselves classified.

Words To Avoid




Communist Party


"shakhid" (suicide bomber)



October Revolution


Forbidden Subjects

The personality of Islam Karimov

The health of Islam Karimov

The family of Islam Karimov

The firms and companies belonging to Karimov

The personal lives or commercial activities of high-level bureaucrats

The number of people who work for the Interior Ministry and intelligence service

Repression of religious people

The use of child labor

Corruption in higher-education facilities

Corruption among state bureaucrats or law-enforcement officials

Military readiness

Unpaid wages

The official status of the Russian or Tajik languages


Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, or Karl Marx

Censorship in Uzbekistan

Source: "O chem zapreshchaetcya picat v Uzbekistane," D. Morfius, 29 June 2004,

[Originally published on 25 November 2004.]

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