An unprecedented two-day media seminar has opened in Tashkent, marking the first time that freedom of speech is being discussed in Uzbekistan in a forum that includes genuine critics of the regime.
There’s only one hitch to the media-freedom conference: the press can’t cover it.
Authorities allowed some reporters to take part in the discussions, but they did not invite journalists -- foreign or Uzbek -- to cover the conference. They said the discussions would be summarized in a press release at the end.
Previously postponed twice by Uzbek authorities, the conference does nevertheless include some of President Islam Karimov’s harshest critics, such as officials from the International Crisis Group (ICG), Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
The event -- titled Liberalization of Mass Media: An Important Component of the Democratization of Society -- gets underway just as the EU is preparing to review its currently suspended visa ban and arms embargo on Uzbekistan. The sanctions were imposed following the bloody crackdown against antigovernment protesters in Andijon in May 2005.
According to Elsa Vidal, media rights group Reporters Without Borders'
director for Europe and the former Soviet Union, the decision to restrict press coverage undermines the purpose of the conference.
“It loses a lot of sense if such an event happens but journalists are not allowed to speak about it. I don’t see the meaning unless it shows that Uzbek authorities want to have a total control of freedom of speech once again," Vidal said. "I’m a little bit skeptical about what could come from such an initiative.”
A Step Forward?
At the same time, Vidal says the forum does represent some slight progress for Tashkent, because European nongovernmental organizations and advocates of press freedom were allowed to come to Tashkent and address censorship and other problems facing journalists in Uzbekistan.
But even those journalists who were invited to take part in the debates have been very cautious in what they say, according to Andrew Stroehlein, the ICG's director of media and information, who is taking part in the forum.
“Deep down many [Uzbek journalists] know that there are problems that they are facing with self-censorship every day, there are many stories they would like to report but they simply can't," Stroehlein said. "I don't think we're telling them anything particularly new, but the fact that we can say it openly and Uzbek journalists cannot is the difference.”
Uzbek journalists’ caution is understandable. The Uzbek authorities are known for their zero-tolerance policy toward any form of dissent in the independent media.
Press freedom is virtually non-existent in the country, and the authorities have closed down foreign media offices in Uzbekistan, including RFE/RL and BBC bureaus. Regional news websites, such as Fergana.ru and UzMetronom, have also been blocked in Uzbekistan.
Fearing reprisals and persecution, Uzbek journalists resort to self-censorship and avoid topics that could annoy the government, including the torture of prisoners, the lack of political freedom, and even sensitive non-political issues, like the use of child labor on cotton farms.
Those who cross the government’s red line often pay a heavy price, such as losing their job or ending up in prison. And a number of journalists reporting from Tashkent for Western media, including Galima Bukharbayeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Natalya Bushueva of Deutsche Welle, have been forced into exile.
A month ago, state-controlled television aired a documentary depicting RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondents as enemies of Uzbekistan.
Many Uzbek journalist say they don’t believe that the latest forum in Tashkent will bring any positive change to the Uzbek media scene.
Bukharbayeva says she does not believe any improvements can take place under Karimov's leadership. "The regime hates the press. Moreover, the regime has realized that the absence of freedom, pressure on freedom, is a vital condition for the regime’s continuity," she said. "Karimov understood that the absence of freedom is an elixir of longevity for him. Therefore, he would never, ever allow" a free press, Bukharbayeva said.
Uznews.net, a news website not accessible in Uzbekistan, describes the latest conference as a show staged by Uzbek authorities seeking to improve their relations with the West. The EU has been critical of Uzbekistan’s human rights records, and Tashkent’s critics say it wants to use the forum to indicate that Uzbekistan is opening up.
If the conference is intended for propaganda purposes, then the domestic audience is also a target. Stroehlein says foreign guests are being filmed extensively by state-run television, but it remains unclear how the state media will cover the event or what “the Uzbek voiceover of their comments was going to be.”
Regardless, it’s safe to say that the Uzbek state media is very unlikely to report on what Stroehlein calls foreign experts' “direct and very open criticism” of the media situation in Uzbekistan.
RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babajanov contributed to this report