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Uzbekistan: Journalists' Rights Group Urges Relaxation Of Press Restrictions

A delegation from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists completed a mission to Uzbekistan earlier this week by denouncing the lack of media freedom in the country. The watchdog group says the Uzbek government appears to have little intention of fulfilling past commitments to improve democracy in the country.

Prague, 13 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A delegation from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, ended a nine-day mission to Uzbekistan this week by calling on Tashkent to relax policies that severely restrict press freedom in the country. It also called on the government to free three imprisoned journalists.

According to Alex Lupis, the CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, the trip to Uzbekistan was prompted by recent moves by Uzbek President Islam Karimov that had suggested his willingness to tolerate more press freedom.

In an April speech to the Uzbek Parliament, Karimov said: "Freedom of speech and the press is central.... We want to build an open, legal, democratic state, so we must do great work in these directions."

In a related development, Erkin Kamilov, who headed the Uzbek agency for the protection of state secrets, retired last month in a move some observers considered a step toward press liberalization. In addition, the agency is no longer empowered to cut or demand changes in press articles.

Lupis said the CPJ decided to send a delegation to Uzbekistan to examine these and other developments more closely. But Lupis said that after meeting with Uzbek government officials, journalists and human-rights activists in the capital, Tashkent, and in Samarkand, the delegation concluded that little has changed for the better. "You can say, more or less, that almost every aspect of journalists' rights are being violated in Uzbekistan. Unlike Tajikistan for example, you don't have many cases of murdered journalists, but their rights in every other way are violated," Lupis said.

According to the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan, two journalists have been murdered since Uzbekistan's independence: Sergei Grebenyuk in 1996 and Emin Usman in 2001. In Tajikistan, the CPJ has documented the murder of 19 journalists since 1992, most during the country's 1992-1997 civil war.

Lupis said Uzbek authorities routinely use imprisonment, bureaucratic obstruction, and repression by police to intimidate journalists. "[Journalists] are fired from their jobs and lose their salary in retaliation for their reporting. Sometimes their editors will not publish their articles or broadcast their news pieces because they're critical [of the government]. Sometimes the government takes specific action, either through courts, the police, the SNB [National Security Service], through the State Press Committee or through the MKK [Inter-Agency Coordination Committee] against them," Lupis said.

The State Press Committee and the Inter-Agency Coordination Committee are jointly responsible for licensing and regulating the press in Uzbekistan. In particular, the CPJ argues, the State Press Committee should not have the power to rescind media licenses arbitrarily, as it did in the case of ALC-TV.

ALC-TV is a local television station in the northern city of Urgench that had displayed editorial independence. Starting in 1995, it was periodically closed down and was definitively closed last summer. The director of the station, Shukhrat Babadjanov, was forced to flee into exile because of threats of imprisonment on what the CPJ calls false charges.

Badadjanov was charged with forgery related to a letter of reference written by artist Ruzi Choriev, for Babadjanov's application to join the Union of Artists of Uzbekistan in the early 1990s. Babadjanov now works in RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

The CPJ said the Uzbek government's harsh policies have succeeded in creating a culture of self-censorship among the country's media. As a result, the CPJ claimed, Uzbek journalists rarely cover sensitive issues such as corruption involving officials, human-rights abuses, or the activities of opposition political parties and Islamic organizations.

In a statement, CPJ representative Peter Arnett, who joined the delegation to Uzbekistan, said government officials in Tashkent maintain that Uzbekistan is a "young country" and that it is unrealistic to expect the country already to have Western-level press freedoms in place.

But Arnett argued that as Uzbekistan's economy and military organizations mature based on standards established abroad, it should also move quickly ahead with establishing media freedom.

Numerous attempts to contact the Uzbek government for comment on the CPJ report were unsuccessful.

In its report, the CPJ delegation makes several recommendations to help improve press freedom in Uzbekistan. Most notably, it is asking the Uzbek government to release immediately three Uzbek journalists from prison: Muhammed Bekjanov and Iusuf Ruzimuradov, both of the banned opposition newspaper "Erk," and Madzid Abduraimov of the weekly "Yangi Asr."

Emma Gray, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia consultant, told RFE/RL that the CPJ is determined to have journalists imprisoned for their work freed. "We were very pleased that Shodi Mardiev was released from his imprisonment, but we're still extremely concerned about Madzid Abduraimov and other journalists who remain in prison in Uzbekistan. It's one of the few countries where journalists are imprisoned for their writings," Gray said.

Mardiev, a radio reporter who was sentenced in 1998 to an 11-year prison term for defamation and extortion, was released under an amnesty at the beginning of this year.

Abduraimov was sentenced in 2001 to 13 years in prison for bribery and extortion and for possession of narcotics. His supporters believe his arrest was linked to articles he wrote on government corruption.

Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov continue to serve 14- and 15-year sentences, respectively, for their involvement with "Erk."

In order to improve the situation for journalists in countries such as Uzbekistan, Lupis said the CPJ's primary tactic is to investigate and document press freedom violations and then publicize them. "We hope that when the government receives this information and understands that foreign organizations like [the] CPJ are monitoring conditions very closely, that they will become more careful, that they will understand that continuing to abuse journalists will have a very negative impact on Uzbekistan's international image," Lupis said.

Lupis said this information is sent to the U.S. State Department, to Western European governments, to the United Nations, and to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)