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Uzbekistan: State TV 'Threatens' RFE/RL Journalists

RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau before its forced closure at the hands of Uzbek authorities in late 2005 (RFE/RL) Uzbek state television has aired a program about RFE/RL that rights activists and political analysts say contains "the worst kind of threats" against the broadcaster's Uzbek journalists and amounts to "terrorism" against the free press.

The hour-long program was stridently critical of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service -- known as Radio Ozodlik (Liberty) -- accusing its reporters not only of violating journalistic ethics but also of carrying out antistate activities. The program broadcast detailed personal information on several Ozodlik journalists and their family members, including addresses, passport information, places of work, and even the names and locations of their children's schools.

Most Ozodlik journalists live in Prague after RFE/RL’s Tashkent bureau was forced to close after reporting on the Andijon massacre in May 2005, in which Uzbek troops fired on a crowd of civilian protesters, killing hundreds, according to witnesses and rights activists. But many of the relatives of Ozodlik journalists remain in Uzbekistan.

“This is really, deeply worrying,” says Andrew Stroehlein, media director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nongovernmental policy group focused on conflict prevention. “These television stations are known to have close links with the security services, and it’s very well known that last year, when they vilified another journalist by the name of Alisher Saipov, he was murdered very shortly after.”

Saipov, a correspondent for the Voice of America and frequent RFE/RL contributor for Uzbek-language programs, was gunned down last year in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. The killing of the 26-year-old ethnic Uzbek was widely believed ordered by Uzbek security forces.

Prime Time

The broadcast about Radio Ozodlik was aired on three state-run regional Uzbek television stations at prime time on June 9 and 10 to an estimated audience of 11 million, including in areas of neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Elsa Vidal, who heads the European and post-Soviet desk at the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), expresses solidarity with RFE/RL’s journalists and their families.

“These public addresses on television broadcasts jeopardize their security because they are targeted now as ‘traitors,’ which we know is usually the first state before deeper harassment,” Vidal says. “So we hope this won’t go further, but unfortunately we think we are now witnessing a worsening of the situation in Uzbekistan.”

Abdurahman Tashanov, a Tashkent-based independent journalist, called the program a direct threat. "This program is terror, political terror against democrats and journalists who don't share the government's views, who oppose it,” Tashanov says.

“The state has always used this policy since the early years of independence and has improved it. In the early years of independence, they used it against opposition members, then in the early 2000s -- under the pretext of the war against terror," he adds. "Now, it has become an information war. The regime uses it to survive because democratic voices from Radio Liberty, BBC, and other foreign media sources are a problem for the Uzbek government.”

RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin called the program “a direct and deliberate attempt to endanger our journalists." In a written statement, Gedmin added: "The Uzbek government has produced these broadcasts to portray our journalists as criminals, and therefore either to incite attacks against them or to condition viewers for attacks it may seek to perpetrate itself. These are the acts of an outlaw regime, not of a respectable government."

Media Freedom Conference

The program was aired on the same days that the Uzbek government hosted a conference on “media freedom” in Tashkent that human rights advocates called a “sad farce.” In April, the European Union had agreed to hold the conference together with the Uzbek government, inviting top international rights groups to attend such as the ICG, RSF, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute.

The EU made its decision on the same day it had agreed to maintain a freeze on sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed after civilian protesters were killed in 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon. However, Uzbek officials scrapped the agreed plans for the EU-Uzbek conference on media freedom, instead staging their own. None of the international rights groups were invited.

Both Vidal and Stroehlein say it was darkly ironic that the conference was held on the same days that the Uzbek stations aired their program on Radio Ozodlik. Stroehlein says the authoritarian government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- which both Washington and the European Union have tried to engage in recent months after pursuing a tougher policy of isolation over rights abuses -- feels that it can act with “complete impunity against people who are trying to bring some kind of free information to the citizens of that country." “It’s awful, appalling in every way,” he says.

This week, Uzbek authorities arrested former RFE/RL journalist and human rights activist Solijon Abdurahmanov, accusing him of “antigovernment” activity. Abdurahmanov had been an RFE/RL correspondent until 2005, when the Tashkent bureau was closed.

Last month, on the third anniversary of the Andijon events, Uzbek police arrested another former RFE/RL journalist, Nosir Zokirov. He was the first reporter to cover the massacre.

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