An unprecedented media seminar is taking place starting today in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The two-day event, sponsored by the European Union, marks the first time that freedom of speech will be discussed in Uzbekistan in a forum that includes real critics of the regime and not just pro-government experts hired by the Uzbek authorities. (Full report here
Representatives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Open Society Institute, the International Crisis Group, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting are taking part in the seminar, which is titled "Liberalization of Mass Media: An Important Component of the Democratization of Society."
Tashkent agreed to host the seminar after twice postponing it -- in May and June 2008. The event is taking place in Tashkent 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 government crackdown against antigovernment protesters in Andijon in May 2005.
However, at least one media watchdog is not impressed by the event.
Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe Desk at the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, calls the seminar an "interesting initiative" but notes that Uzbek media are, ironically, banned from covering the event.
"To be honest, it loses lots of sense if such a thing happens, such an event happens, but journalists [in Uzbekistan] are not allowed to speak about it," Vidal tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
. "I don’t see the meaning unless it shows that the Uzbek authorities want to have total control of freedom of speech once again. So I am a little bit skeptical about what good comes from such an initiative. You can't at the same time try to enhance the situation of press freedom while at the same moment you ask journalists not to speak about it."
Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group, who is in Tashkent, said Uzbek authorities and journalists at the seminar have been hearing forceful criticism, but that the conversation has been largely "one-sided."
"I would have liked to have seen more journalists covering this event. We're certainly being filmed as we go along, obviously for propaganda purposes," Stroehlein told RFE/RL today. "Who knows what the voiceover will be this evening or tomorrow evening when they show these video elements on Uzbek television.... I would have liked to have seen some independent Uzbek journalists at this event. Of course, most independent Uzbek journalists are either in prison or in exile, so they can't really be expected to come to Tashkent."
(by Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service)