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Uzbekistan's Forced Subscribers Question Value Of State-Run Press


According to one distributor of state publications, "nobody would buy" the newspapers they issue "if they didn't force people to subscribe." (illustrative photo)

In Uzbekistan, where media has remained tightly controlled by the government even decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, public-sector workers say they still don't have the freedom to choose whether to subscribe to state-run newspapers.

Many of those workers tell RFE/RL they are fed up with forced-subscription measures imposed by their managers that increase the circulation of state-run publications but make it harder to feed their families.

Teachers, doctors, hospital staff, and bank employees from across Uzbekistan say the state's annual subscription drive begins each autumn just after many of them finish obligatory stints harvesting cotton on state-run farms.

"Everyone must subscribe to at least two publications," a nurse at the Andijon Regional Emergency Medical Center told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service about the measures imposed by her managers.

"We have a choice about which government newspaper we subscribe to, but we are all obliged to buy a medical journal called Hamshira (Nurse)," the nurse said, asking not to be identified because she feared she would lose her job.

"Even the doctors must subscribe," she added. "It costs me about one-third of [one month's] salary, so I have to feed these publications instead of feeding my own children."

Keeping Tabs

Accounting records from the hospital obtained by RFE/RL confirm that managers keep tabs on whether staff are buying the publications and which state-run newspaper they're choosing.

In Uzbekistan's western region of Khorezm, teachers told RFE/RL that their administrators force them to subscribe to the state-run newspaper Halq So'zi (People's Word).

Requests for a popular state-run tabloid called Darakchi (The Herald) are refused.

Teachers say that's because their administrators buy Halq So'zi in bulk and it's up to them to distribute the publication to employees.

"For that publication, the administrators keep a list of subscribers and sometimes we never even get the publication," one teacher in Khorezm complained. "Other times, they are outdated -- more than three months old -- by the time we receive them."

Even pensioners said they were forced to buy state-run newspapers. They told RFE/RL that the subscription cost is automatically deducted from their pensions during the state's autumn subscription drive when they go to the post office to collect their cash stipend -- whether they request a publication or not.

"I never read the newspaper they force me to buy," one Tashkent pensioner told RFE/RL. "I take stacks of them, unread, to a man who has a kiosk on my street. He buys them from me for a symbolic price and wraps sunflower seeds in them. At least it's some compensation."

Propagating 'Good Things'

Shuhrat Jabborov, editor in chief of Halq So'zi, took exception to the term "forced subscription" when asked by Uzbek state TV about the practice.

"Newspapers are a form of propaganda," Jabborov said. "Newspapers propagate good things to people. It is an ideology. So we need to endorse, we need to propagate our newspaper. We call on people to read it. We need to attract readers. You call it 'forced subscription.' This is wrong."

In fact, under Uzbekistan's 1996 Law on the Protection of Consumer's Rights, "producers" cannot force citizens to buy their product.

Not surprisingly, Uzbekistan's state-run Federation for the Protection of Consumers' Rights says it has never received a complaint from a citizen about being forced to buy state publications.

All state employees who complained to RFE/RL about the practice said they feared losing their jobs if they made a formal complaint to state authorities.

A regional director for Matbuot Tarqatuvchi, the official distributor of all state publications in Uzbekistan, confirmed that state newspapers do not have the authority to force workers or state organizations to subscribe.

"State organizations themselves may be forcing their employees to subscribe to state publications in order to keep them informed," the regional director told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "If they didn't force people to subscribe, nobody would buy these newspapers and magazines. Nobody would read them."

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babadjanov
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