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Food Colorants And The 'Red Lines' For Uzbek Bloggers

A screengrab from a video by Xodjiakbar Nosirov, which landed the Uzbek blogger in hot water.
A screengrab from a video by Xodjiakbar Nosirov, which landed the Uzbek blogger in hot water.

In a video filmed in a supermarket, Uzbek blogger Xodjiakbar Nosirov tells his tens of thousands of followers why he believes that a number of yogurt brands popular in Uzbekistan should be considered "haram," or unfit for consumption by Muslims.

The forbidden ingredient, he explained, is carmine, or E120, a red food colorant that is extracted from the cochineal beetle that lives on cacti in South America and which is also used in cosmetics.

That video was enough to land Nosirov with 15 days in detention, in a case that points to the increased restrictions on bloggers -- including religious bloggers -- who had earlier benefited from new freedoms afforded under President Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Police in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, said in an April 8 press release that Nosirov's video infringed on the constitutional rights of citizens to enjoy a private life free of interference, and on the rights of private entrepreneurs.

According to Uzbek law, "the preparation and dissemination of materials of religious content throughout the country is carried out after receiving a positive conclusion from a theological examination," city police said in a statement.

That was a religious blessing that Nosirov didn't have, and his opinions were quickly shown to be at odds with Uzbekistan's state-backed spiritual authority, which issued a ruling on carmine almost immediately after the blogger's arrest was announced, citing a Jordanian fatwa on the matter.

The Uzbek religious body said that the E120 additive was an example of "substances obtained from insects [being] chemically converted into other substances. This process in Islamic law is called 'istihol,' which is the transformation of one substance into another."

Free Speech 'Unreasonably Suppressed'

Which additives are considered halal and which are haram is a debate had among Muslim scholars, jurists, and believers the world over. Contrary to the city police's complaint that Nosirov was acting based on personal opinion, the Uzbek religious blogger had included links to two websites on Islamic jurisprudence in his video that supported his claim that the food products were haram.

But debate is apparently what the authorities wanted to avoid.

"Clearly there is no argument of there being extremism in this video. So, we can call this an instance of free speech being unreasonably suppressed," said Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the U.K.-based Central Asia Due Diligence research company.

"Why did this take place? It is hard to say. Perhaps somebody close to the regime has a business producing or importing this yogurt. Or perhaps somebody in power has taken a dislike to this blogger. But it is difficult to argue from the legal point of view," Ilkhamov said.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

Former Prime Minister Mirziyoev's arrival in power after the death of long-serving strongman Islam Karimov in 2016 was associated with a thaw in one of the world's most repressive countries, with new, albeit limited media freedoms among the most immediate fruits of the leadership change.

The new environment led to an explosion in the popularity of blogging, with Telegram channels themed on religion, politics, and other previously taboo topics proliferating.

Mirziyoev's own exhortations on the subject of freedom of speech have been frequent since then. In his annual address in December 2020, the head of state called "openness and freedom of speech…a requirement of the times, a requirement for reforms in Uzbekistan." In February 2021, Mirziyoev hailed journalists as "a force that justly imparts our achievements and shortcomings to our people."

But 2021 would see the first severe jail term handed out to a media worker under Mirziyoev, as a blogger from the southern town of Termez called Otabek Sattoriy was handed sentence of 6 1/2 years in prison after being convicted on multiple counts of extortion and one count of slander.

Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy (file photo)
Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy (file photo)

Sattoriy and his family denied the claims and said they were instead connected to his citizen journalism, which was relentlessly critical of local authorities. Sattoriy has said he was only answering Mirziyoev's call.

In February, another blogger, Abuqodir Muminov, was arrested on similar charges. Muminov, whose YouTube channel boasts more than 240,000 subscribers, is a rare example of a blogger who dared to criticize Mirziyoev himself. The case has not yet reached a verdict.

In March, RFE/RL became aware from multiple sources that bloggers critical of plans to change the constitution via an April 30 referendum -- a move that will allow Mirziyoev to run beyond his current term -- were called in for questioning by police.

One Uzbek blogger told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals that police had informed him that the criticism of the constitutional changes in his Telegram channel could constitute a violation of Article 242 of the Criminal Code, which covers crimes against public security.

He would be especially vulnerable to this charge if people were to "rise up like in Nukus" -- a reference to unrest in Uzbekistan's Autonomous Republic Of Karakalpakstan that authorities used lethal force to suppress last year -- the blogger quoted police as saying.

Along with openings for press and bloggers, Mirziyoev's reign has relaxed some of the vice-like restrictions on Islam, the religion followed by the vast majority of the population. Longtime leader Karimov was notorious for conflating pious Muslims with the extremists that had challenged him during his presidency, and Mirziyoev inherited thousands of prisoners jailed on religious grounds, only some of whom have been released.

Wave Of Detentions

Mirziyoev called the state's prior repressions of religious believers "our tragedy" and de facto bans on loudspeakers in the Muslim call to prayer and on children attending mosques gradually disappeared.

But like political activists, religious bloggers have found the limits on permissible speech regularly shifting. Back in 2018, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on a wave of detentions targeting popular bloggers calling for an end to restrictions on beards and Islamic dress. Those bloggers mostly spent 15 days in administrative detention -- the same stint Nosirov is serving now.

But last year, a blogger called Fazilhoja Arifhojaev was handed a sentence of 7 1/2 years after being convicted for posting materials that threaten public safety. Formally, a 2021 Facebook post where Arifhojaev commented approvingly on an article doubting whether Muslims should congratulate nonbelievers on non-Muslim holidays was the reason for the sentence.

Yet Arifhojaev, a critic of the government's religious policies, was only punished after he became embroiled in a spiraling war of words with an Imam-turned-Instagram celebrity affiliated to the government-controlled Center of Islamic Civilization, a combined academy and national history project initiated under Mirziyoev.

The imam, Abror Abduazimov (known online as Abror Muxtor Ali), has been a regular source of controversy for his hard-line views on LGBT and women's rights and has also railed against liberal bloggers and Western media, including RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

And yet despite often publishing provocative posts for the benefit of his 800,000 followers on the platform, Abduazimov had avoided censure until earlier this year when a court in Tashkent ruled against him in a defamation case initiated by another blogger. The court ruled that Abduazimov had falsely attributed a range of comments and positions to the blogger and journalist, Nikita Makarenko.

In its February 21 report on the case, the private news website noted that the court reduced Abduazimov's punishment to a fine equating to around $500, or nearly three times lower than the minimum punishment for the crime, "taking into account that Abduazimov is the only breadwinner in the family and has six children." Abduazimov, who did not respond to a request for an interview from RFE/RL, hailed the verdict as a "victory."

Ilkhamov of Central Asia Due Diligence told RFE/RL that the lenient treatment afforded to Abduazimov highlights that, in Uzbekistan, bloggers are not all equal before the law.

"What we see is that some bloggers have carte blanche because they have some kind of ties to the security services and others get punished for fairly innocent things, like expressing an opinion about carmine," Ilkhamov said.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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