Despite formidable obstacles, independent media has for years managed to maintain an on-the-ground presence in Uzbekistan.
But that rare window into a country of 30 million renowned for its suppression of the media is in danger of being closed.
It is not pressure by the Uzbek state -- which cultivates a press and Internet environment ranked "not free" by the media watchdog Freedom House -- that is threatening independent outlets. This time, it is simply a matter of money.
Abdurahmon Tashanov, the Tashkent-based editor of the website Harakat.net, says independent and opposition media in Uzbekistan suffer from "drastically waning financial support by international organizations."
"We haven't received funding from our international donors in recent years, and have to rely on individual activists and readers' donations," Tashanov says.
Their dependence on foreign funding, often in the form of financial grants, has hampered the ability of many established independent outlets to maintain a reporting presence in Uzbekistan.
Uzmetronom.com, a well-known site based in Tashkent, is essentially a one-man show, operated by its editor in chief. Financial hardship recently forced Harakat.net and the Russia-based Ferghana.ru to post fundraising appeals on their websites. Another, Uznews.net, recently opted to temporarily suspend operations.
Overcoming occasional harassment from the Uzbek authorities and the difficulties of working as unregistered media, the four websites have for years managed to cover political and social developments in the country. They frequently report on human rights abuses, the situation in the country's notorious prisons, and government corruption.
The Uzbek government tightened its grip on independent media shortly after the Andijon massacre of May 2005, in which hundreds were killed when government troops fired on protesters. Following the unrest, many journalists were harassed and media outlets that criticized President Islam Karimov's policies were closed.
"We used to operate in Uzbekistan officially, but following the Andijon events we and other independent media lost our press accreditation," says Danil Kyslov, founder and editor of Ferghana.ru.
Nevertheless, Ferghana.ru and others continued to report on, and from, Uzbekistan, earning themselves an audience both in and outside the country.
"Some 5,000 unique readers a day enter our site using proxy servers, and the majority of them are based in Uzbekistan," Kyslov says. "Besides that, we get e-mail messages from our readers from Uzbekistan, who comment on the website's content."
Running On Empty
The reports by independent outlets differ greatly from those provided by state-controlled media, which unambiguously refrains from criticizing government policies. And as outside voices are quieted, state-run or state-controlled media are getting more savvy in disseminating information outside Uzbekistan via the Internet.
Aside from official channels, at least a dozen new media outlets have been established in Uzbekistan in recent years. Some are linked to the government, while others are believed to be close to individuals with close ties to the authorities.
Kyslov and other independent media managers are unsure for how long they will be able to afford to "offer an alternative picture."
"We need to pay more money for journalists who have to work under difficult circumstances, because their task is dangerous, serious, and responsible," the Ferghana.ru founder says. "Besides, it's such a situation where you can't easily obtain and verify information, so you have to work harder. We need to pay for such work, but if our financial situation stays the same, soon we won't have the ability to pay more."
Harakat.net editor Tashanov acknowledges the website "no longer employs professional reporters" in Uzbekistan's regions and instead relies on "sources and contacts who have access to information."
A Bleak Future
Uzmetronom.com editor in chief Sergei Ejkov tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that "due to a complete lack of funding by donors" he is the only one left to write, report, edit, and update the site.
Ejkov seeks to convince Uzbek authorities that "objective information" benefits both society and government. "Independent media play an important role in society because, in the absence of any critical point of view -- or at least an alternative viewpoint -- the government loses touch with reality, it loses its relevance and quality."
He urges international organizations to allocate funds to struggling independent media to get alternative and uncensored information from Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous country and a major player in the region.
"Otherwise, the future for independent media in Uzbekistan is bleak," Ejkov says. "If you don't have money you can't eat. It means independent media is simply fading out."