TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's government is abandoning an experiment introduced earlier this year that had given rare leeway to journalists on tightly controlled state television.
A departure from decades of precedent in one of the former Soviet Union's most authoritarian states, tolerance for live questioning of Uzbek officials had emerged amid criticism from the newly minted President Shavkat Mirziyoev that state TV was full of sycophantic adulation for public officials and needed to better reflect the realities faced by ordinary Uzbeks.
But authorities this week decided, at least for now, to halt live broadcasts of talk shows and panel discussions in which officials face journalists.
A presidential ally defended the return to canned programming and blamed it on impudence on the part of journalists.
“Just because a couple of individuals have stepped over the line, that doesn't mean democratic reforms are being reversed,” Abduqodir Toshkulov, a Mirziyoev backer and parliamentary deputy from Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov's Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, said.
While it appears early to talk of meaningful "democratic reforms," Mirziyoev has announced modest shifts in domestic- and foreign-policy areas since taking office in December that have fueled speculation that he might be ever-so-slightly easing Uzbek authorities' grip on public life.
The reversal was announced to state broadcasters and journalists on August 21 by Aripov during a meeting headed by Mirziyoev's state adviser on information and culture.
An independent journalist with the Tashkent-based human rights group Compassion who was present at the meeting, Abdurakhmon Tashanov, speculated that Aripov's announcement must have been ordered by Mirziyoev because the prime minister is not in a position to contravene the directives of Uzbekistan's president.
“Prime Minister Aripov's meeting with journalists at Uzbekistan's National Radio and Television Company was called as a result of the personal initiative of President Mirziyoev,” Tashanov told RFE/RL.
Separate accounts from three journalists from Uzbekistan's state media who also attended the gathering -- but who asked not to be named because they fear retribution from state media managers -- indicate that the meeting became heated when Aripov began criticizing journalist Sherzod Qudrathojaev, the moderator of a live public-affairs talk show called International Press Club on the Uzbekistan 24 channel.
Since the daily weekday program began on April 7, state authorities complain that Qudrathojaev has displayed disrespect for public officials who appear on it -- including mayors, regional administrators, parliamentary deputies, and even cabinet officials like Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov.
Aripov shouted contemptuously at Qudrathojaev, the sources who attended said.
They said Qudrathojaev responded by telling Aripov, “Just because you are the prime minister now doesn't mean you are allowed to yell at me or address me” in such a belittling way.
International Press Club appeared to have been growing in popularity but has not been broadcast since the August 21 meeting -- not even in a prerecorded format.
On his Facebook page, Qudrathojaev denied that his program has been canceled, saying that it would go back on the air after resolving “some technical issues.”
Meanwhile, two other live talk shows on the state-run Yoshlar youth channel -- Point Of View and Triangle -- are no longer being broadcast in the live format. Instead, they are being aired as prerecorded programs.
Under Uzbekistan's former autocratic ruler, the late President Islam Karimov, there was no live news or public affairs programming on state television. The only live broadcasts were of major sporting events like the Olympics.
Some public officials have incurred criticism under the live broadcast format with responses to public concerns that were widely seen as lacking media savvy.
Footage from a recent live broadcast of Point Of View went viral on Uzbek social media after a government official was seen laughing about interviews with impoverished Uzbeks who complained about rising meat prices.
Neither Mirziyoev's office nor Aripov's government has commented publicly about the heated argument between the prime minister and Qudrathojaev.
Mirziyoev ally Toshkulov said on August 23 that Qudrathojaev was using his program to promote himself.
“There is no country in the world where journalists have such a disrespectful attitude toward mayors, ministers, and parliamentary deputies,” Toshkulov argued. “Giving an assessment of the work of these officials is the prerogative only of the president” and not the job of journalists, he added.