Officially, it’s Media Day in Uzbekistan today, although the running joke among journalists is that the government is actually celebrating Victory Day over the country’s free and independent media.
A confirmation of sorts of that dark assessment came this week when the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a prestigious German organization, announced the suspension of a 1 million euro ($1.57 million) European Union-backed program to train Uzbek journalists, citing problems with the authoritarian government in Tashkent.
In an interview, a senior official with the German foundation confirmed its decision to stop the most ambitious countrywide media project sponsored by the European Union in Uzbekistan.
The program had been aimed at training independent journalists in a repressive state where media freedom does not exist. In the end, however, the Uzbek government’s meddling in the program forced the Adenauer Foundation to pull out.
Peter Kappinger, the foundation’s Brussels representative, told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that “we suggested to the European Union commission last year not to continue it, in other words not to throw out money. But then, of course, we had to decide. And now we came to the conclusion together with the EU that there was no possibility to achieve the results of the project.”
Kappinger said the Uzbek government basically wanted to reduce by half the program’s activities, such as setting up press clubs in provincial capitals and a model project on accessing information.
“In other words, they wanted to limit our activity to holding seminars and forcing us to work with government-controlled NGOs,” he said.
Failed Attempt At Engagement
International media-freedom groups had criticized the foundation’s joint initiative with the EU, saying it was being carried out with a government that suppresses freedom of speech and persecutes independent journalists.
Kappinger defends having at least made an effort, but says the program clearly couldn’t work in Uzbekistan. “Let’s say it is a normal story of what can happen in such authoritarian countries," he said. "We had signs that we would be allowed to do that. If you don’t try, you cannot change anything. And if it didn’t work in the end, what can you do?”
But some see a larger significance in the decision to stop the media project.
Engagement with Tashkent remains the EU’s official policy. But Markus Bensman, a German journalist who closely follows Uzbek issues, says that by pulling out of the media project, the EU has acknowledged that it is impossible to engage with Uzbek authorities -- at least on the matter of freedom of speech and press.
The project was "only for propaganda use," Bensman said. "If you aim to support independent journalists in Uzbekistan, I think this kind of project is not suitable, because Uzbekistan is an enemy of press freedom. They jail journalists and prevent independent media in their country. But the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and European Union decided to do it; I think that [this] is a big blow for them.”
It’s not the only blow for the EU’s efforts to engage in a dialogue on media freedom with Uzbekistan.
This month, Uzbekistan canceled an EU-sponsored press-freedom seminar to be held in Tashkent. The gathering was supposed to bring together representatives of press freedom and human rights groups as well as Uzbek officials. Instead, Tashkent held its own conference on “press freedom” which defended the country’s policy toward the media.
Activists called the gathering “a sad farce.”
In what was widely seen as another attack on independent media, former RFE/RL correspondent Solijon Adburahmonov was arrested this month in the western Uzbek city of Nukus. He was accused of possession of drugs.
Elke Schafter, the executive director of Reporters Without Borders in Berlin, says the EU should draw clear lessons from these latest events.
“I think if you start training journalists, you have to make sure too that if they implement what they’ve learned, that they are safe. And that is not the case in Uzbekistan," she said. The EU now sees now that they can’t count on the Uzbek government, and is now more aware of the risks, she added.