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EU, NGOs Weigh In As Uzbek State Campaign Against RFE/RL Continues

Uzbek state media continue to target RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Radio Ozodlik) weeks after the first broadcast of a documentary against Radio Liberty was aired on several TV stations in Uzbekistan.

The media campaign against RFE/RL comes as the government of President Islam Karimov is holding negotiations with the European Union on improving the country's human rights record.

Sharq TV in Namangan, in eastern Uzbekistan, aired a report on July 1 about a discussion aimed at confronting the impact of Radio Ozodlik broadcasting among the population. The roundtable was held in the regional governor's office.

The show presenter said raising public awareness about Radio Ozdolik had paramount importance in "the fight against the ideological threat" that the station presents.

The report quoted a member of a pro-presidential political party as saying that his party had worked out a strategy to counterattack "untruthful" reporting by Radio Ozodlik.

"We have witnessed how Radio Ozodlik abuses freedom of speech," the party member said. "At the roundtable, we agreed and worked out measures by political parties, nongovernmental noncommercial organizations, and mahalla (local neighborhoods) aimed to fill the ideological vacuum and form a national ideology in the minds of youth, women and [other] citizens."

The TV report and roundtable follow a documentary on Radio Ozodlik, broadcast last month on regional television stations in the eastern Ferghana Valley and then in the capital, Tashkent, last week.

The hour-long program was stridently critical of Radio Ozodlik, accusing its reporters of violating journalistic ethics as well as of carrying out antistate activities.

The program broadcast detailed personal information on several Ozodlik journalists and their relatives, including home addresses, passport information, and places of work.

A report similar to the one by Sharq TV was aired in recent days in the western Khorazm region, Radio Ozodlik's listeners say.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondents also learned that officials in all regions of Uzbekistan received instructions from authorities in Tashkent to hold roundtables and discussions condemning Radio Ozodlik.

An official from the state department on spirituality and education in Ferghana who spoke to Radio Ozodlik on condition of anonymity had this to say on the report.

"Under the slogan of democracy, there have emerged many superficial [media outlets]," the official said. "The intellectual and professional level of your correspondents [at Radio Ozodlik] is not the same, right? We've seen how some of them made-not-very-deep reports based on unchecked information or, for example, they gave the opinion of a single person on a given subject and made it sound like it reflected opinions of all the people. I believe it is not right."

The media campaign against RFE/RL has been going on while the Uzbek government is holding discussions with the European Union about the country's human rights record.

In April, the EU decided to maintain a freeze on sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed after civilian protesters were killed in 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon.

Christiane Hohmann, spokewoman for EU Commissioner on External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the EU has been in close contact with Uzbekistan to discuss the improvements on human rights they expect from the Uzbek authorities, including freedom of speech.

"So this is an ongoing dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan," Hohmann said. "You may be aware that the European Union has suspended the restricted measures against Uzbekistan again in spring to see what progress can be reached. But this is something that will be under review by the end of this summer."

Both the United States and the EU have tried to engage the Uzbek regime in recent months after pursuing a tougher policy of isolation over Uzbek rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed "extreme concern" over Uzbek state media campaign against RFE/RL, and urged the international community to demand adherence to human rights from the Uzbek authorities.

"Our call would go to the international community -- to the EU in particular, as well as to the U.S. government, to speak out at the highest levels and in the strongest possible terms to condemn these practices, to express in the strongest possible terms concern about what is happening, and also on the ground to do whatever they can to ensure the personal safety of individuals who maybe imperil as a result of these attacks," said Veronika Szente-Goldstone, HRW's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Andrew Stroehlein, media director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nongovernmental policy group focused on conflict prevention, said the media expansion of the Uzbek campaign against RFE/RL is a sign that the Uzbek government is "upset" about Radio Ozodlik's reporting and its influence among Uzbeks.

"I think they are going after you [at RFE/RL] because your reach is so extensive and the information that you bring is very valuable," Stroehlein said. "It directly counteracts the propaganda that the government tries to put across with some very truthful stories. The truth is always the most threatening thing to an authoritarian regime."

Stroehlein also said the campaign -- although "vicious" and "horrible" -- is likely to boost the popularity of Ozodlik programs.

"Karimov's 19-year-long dictatorship has proved the significance of free speech," Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of the opposition Erk Democratic Party, told RFE/RL. He suggested that the U.S.-backed station and its broadcasts are "more important than ever" and said the current "large-scale campaign" demonstrates that "the regime started agonizing because of [RFE/RL's] work."

A listener suggested that the harder Uzbek authorities try to prevent citizens from listening, the more people are tuning into Radio Ozodlik.

"People know and understand everything," the listener said. "They continue to tune in. For example, I might not sleep enough or might be very tired after work, but I don't go to bed without listening. There are listeners who always tune in, and the Uzbek [authorities] know it."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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