25 November 2004, Volume
INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER WAITS FOR A NEW DAY.
Tajikistan's independent weekly "Ruzi Nav" (New Day) has been waiting for what its name promises since tax police shut down the Jiyonkhon printing press in late August. Days have stretched into weeks. The newspaper has appealed to both Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and the international community, tried unsuccessfully to find other printers in Tajikistan, gone to the trouble of running off an edition of the newspaper at a printer in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, seen that edition confiscated by the transportation tax police at Dushanbe's airport, and even learned from Tajikistan's Culture Ministry whether or not "Ruzi Nav" can be considered a cultural artifact. For all this, "Ruzi Nav" has not been able to do the most basic thing any newspaper wants -- reach its readers.
The independent weekly's troubles began when the tax police shut down the Jiyonkhon printing house on 18 August. Ironically, "Ruzi Nav" was peripheral to the problem that caused the closure of Jiyonkhon. The police were going after "Nerui Sukhan" (Power of the Word), another independent weekly that has made a name for itself with hard-hitting articles and, like "Ruzi Nav," had its share of run-ins with the authorities. Asia Plus quoted "Ruzi Nav" editor in chief Rajab Mirzo on 19 August as saying, "[The tax police] seized the edition of 'Nerui Sukhan' and sealed the printing house, and the regular editions of 'Ruzi Nav' and [Islamic Renaissance Party newspaper] 'Najot' have not been published. The tax police officers justified their actions by saying that the number of published copies exceeded the figure given by the newspaper."
In an appeal to President Rakhmonov and members of the international community on 19 August, Rajab Mirzo charged that "the purpose of closing down the Jiyonkhon publishing house under the pretext of Nerui Sukhan's problem is also to prevent the publication of 'Ruzi Nav' and 'Najot.'" At the same time, the newspaper looked elsewhere for a printer, but to no avail. On 24 August, "Ruzi Nav" correspondent Manuchehr Masud said, "The newspaper will not be published even this week because no printing house has volunteered to publish it yet," Avesta reported. In another open letter to the president and the international community, this time on 26 August, Rajab Mirzo noted that the owners of other printing presses told him that "they have been ordered not to publish" the newspapers stranded by the closure of Jiyonkhon.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued an open letter on 31 August to President Rakhmonov protesting the harassment of journalists in Tajikistan. The appeal stated: "The clampdown on 'Ruzi Nav' is of particular concern; the newspaper has endured ever-growing pressure from authorities since its launch in August 2003. 'Ruzi Nav' has exposed government corruption and criticized the government's record in combating drug addiction and prostitution." The letter concluded: "[W]e call on you to dismiss government officials who are harassing journalists, and ensure that police and prosecutors aggressively investigate and prosecute those responsible for harassing and attacking journalists."
Officials shrugged off charges of media harassment and insisted that the tax police were merely going about the mundane business of enforcing the law. Davlatali Davlatov, deputy leader of the ruling People's Democracy Party, told Avesta on 7 September, "It is clear that the activities of ['Ruzi Nav,' 'Nerui Sukhan,' and 'Najot'], including the printing house which used to print them, were suspended because of tax evasion and problems with the tax police."
Time passed. By mid-October, "Ruzi Nav's" search for a printer had taken it out of Tajikistan. On 18 October, Rajab Mirzo told Iranian Radio that "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," and "Olamu Odam," another newspaper unable to find a printer in Tajikistan, were going to be printed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with legal help from media assistance foundation Freedom House. "We are going to send the newspaper via e-mail [to Bishkek] and we have made a contract with a Kyrgyz transport company, which will deliver the newspapers [to Tajikistan]," Mirzo explained.
But when the print run arrived in Dushanbe from Bishkek on 4 November, it fell afoul of the tax police's transportation division, which promptly impounded it, Asia Plus reported. But before they confiscated the print run, tax police fully explored their options. First, they counted the newspapers to make sure that the actual number corresponded to the declared number of 15,000. Next, they suggested that the shipment could serve as the host for an infectious disease. Finally, Rajab Mirzo told the news agency, the tax police declared the newspaper a cultural artifact and shipped it off to the Culture Ministry for a definitive ruling on the legal intricacies of its transportation across borders.
Once again, the official story was at variance with reporting by independent news agencies and the explanations of editor in chief Rajab Mirzo. A 9 November report on Tajik Television detailed the government's efforts to create a "reliable legal basis for a free press," noting darkly that some individuals in the media "are taking advantage of this and breaking the law." A tax official then explained that the Kyrgyz edition of "Ruzi Nav" was printed under a contract that described the newspaper as a weekly registered under Kyrgyz laws, while the newspaper's statute is registered with Tajikistan's Justice Ministry. The official promised that the Culture Ministry would resolve the matter. Leaving aside the seeming oddity of referring a dispute over contracts and statutes to the Culture Ministry, the report concluded with the rhetorical question, "At a time when the newspaper is calling for the strengthening of a democratic and law-based society...wasn't it possible to arrange the publication of the weekly in this country, and to contribute to resolving society's problems by paying taxes to the budget?"
As the Culture Ministry mulled the matter over, a despondent Rajab Mirzo told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 13 November, "This is definitely an example of censorship. I think that it's not going to end here. Our case will probably be sent to other [government] agencies and they'll drag it out that way until people forget that such a newspaper existed." For his part, Tajik political analyst and journalist Nurali Davlatov told RFE/RL that he didn't buy the official claims of a simple tax dispute devoid of political subtext. Davlatov said, "I think that this affair is connected to Tajikistan's upcoming [February 2005 parliamentary] elections. Tajikistan, which has proclaimed itself a democratic state, will be well served, I think, by resolving this matter in court." Mirzo seemed to agree, telling RFE/RL that the newspaper's staff is preparing to file a lawsuit in the near future.
The special commission within the Culture Ministry finally ruled that "Ruzi Nav" cannot be considered a cultural artifact, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 22 November. Muzaffar Azizov, who headed the commission, explained that only materials printed at least 50 years ago can aspire to such an elevated status. On this basis, the commission refused even to consider the matter, and Azizov suggested that the Finance Ministry turn to the Justice Ministry to clear up any remaining questions about the newspaper. Still waiting for a new day, Rajab Mirzo told RFE/RL that the authorities are, as he feared, playing for time in the hope that the newspaper will simply "be forgotten." (Daniel Kimmage)
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 (http://www.freeuz.org) 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.
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. (Julie A. Corwin)
WORDS TO AVOID
"shakhid" (suicide bomber)
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
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, freeuz.org
UZBEK JOURNALIST SAYS HE WANTS TO DEFEND HUMAN RIGHTS FROM EXILE IN U.S.
By Bruce Pannier
Twenty-six-year-old independent Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov was jailed in 2003 on charges of committing homosexual acts with a minor. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, which was later reduced to three years.
Sharipov, the winner of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers' 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award, had admitted his homosexuality, despite a Soviet-era law in Uzbekistan that prohibits such behavior.
At the time, international media-freedom organizations and human rights watchdogs -- including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- believed it was Sharipov's work -- and not his lifestyle -- that were behind his legal problems.
Sharipov concurred in an interview today from his new home in California: "Starting in 2001, I worked for the Russian information agency PRIMA that focuses on human rights and media matters in various republics and countries. I was their correspondent in Uzbekistan. Mainly, my articles were about abuses by the militia and the corruption of top officials."
Sharipov said threats against him and his colleagues began to be made soon after his articles appeared on various Internet sites. If the authorities missed the articles on the Internet, they were unlikely to miss them when they appeared in their offices, however.
"We sent our articles to the government, to the presidential apparatus, the Interior Ministry, the National Security Service and other ministries," Sharipov said. "And according to Uzbek law, the government is obligated to read them, and this brought our work to their attention."
Sharipov worked with independent Uzbek human rights groups while he continued his writing. Sharipov said other independent journalists were willing to voice criticism, too, but did not want to address it toward anyone in particular. He said he and a few of his colleagues, however, named officials and wrote about their alleged misdeeds.
The pressure on Sharipov grew. He said he was followed, that his home was put under 24-hour surveillance, and that he was attacked by unknown people and taken to hospital. He said a friend at one of the human rights groups was detained on charges of Islamic extremism but released when international rights organizations pointed out that he was an ethnic Russian from Russia and not even a Muslim.
Sharipov said he was not so fortunate and recounted the events of May 2003: "[The Uzbek authorities] arrested me on 26 May 2003. Six days before, they [had] made their last threat. I was told specially that if I didn't leave Uzbekistan, I would either have to stop my work or something unbelievable would happen to me. And sure enough, on 26 May, they arrested me right in the center of Tashkent. During my detention and trial, it turned out that the people who were warning me [to stop work or leave the country] were representatives of the department for antiterrorism in the Interior Ministry."
Sharipov pleaded not guilty at his court hearings. His lawyers managed to prove that there were no grounds for charging Sharipov with extremist activity. New charges of being a homosexual and engaging in homosexual activity with minors replaced the earlier charges.
Rights and media-freedom organizations claimed Sharipov was being tortured in detention. Sharipov said these reports were true: "They started subjecting me to the cruelest torture. They put antigas clothing on me, then burned different substances around me, things like cotton and other material. And in the antigas suit, you can't breathe, and a person starts to suffocate. And at that moment, they have a machine that revolves like an arm coming from the side of the body and the faster it turns the more of an electric shock it gives out. They used other methods on me also. They put cellophane bags on my head [to cause suffocation]. There were other things too frightening to recount."
Unable to obtain a confession, Sharipov said his jailers changed tactics before his 8 August 2003 court appearance: "I continued to plead not guilty, so they threatened to suffocate me or inject me with HIV, or something that would cause my throat to swell and eventually choke me. On that day, they forced me to plead guilty. They didn't just force me to plead guilty. They forced me to dismiss my lawyer and request that my mother not be allowed [to attend my trial]. And this allowed them to convict me."
International rights and media-freedom organizations kept up the pressure, suspecting Sharipov's sudden change of plea was the result of threats and torture.
Sharipov's fortunes took a turn for the better last November, when the World Association of Newspapers named him the winner of its Golden Pen of Freedom award for 2004. Sharipov said fellow inmates found out about his award from the BBC and told him.
Sharipov said that from that moment, his jailers were more careful about how they treated him.
In June, Sharipov had the rest of his prison sentence replaced by two years of community service. He said he believed he was being transferred to his hometown of Bukhara to fulfill that service, but was told that a deal had been worked out and that he had to leave the country.
Instead of going to Bukhara, Sharipov says he was taken across the border into Kazakhstan, where he boarded a train for Moscow. He arrived in the Russian capital on 28 June. Sharipov was eventually granted asylum in the United States and arrived there on 21 October.
Sharipov credited the international community for his release, particularly the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and Galima Bukharbaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
Sharipov said he is looking for ways to continue his work defending human rights and promoting freedom of speech in Uzbekistan from his new home in the United States. This week, he sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush asking that the war on terrorism not be used as a pretext in Uzbekistan for violating human rights and stifling freedom of speech.
Uzbekistan is a key regional ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism but has been criticized for its human rights violations and lack of media freedom.