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Treatment Of Journalists In Uzbekistan Follows Familiar Pattern

Yelena Bondar: "They asked whether we were taught how to organize velvet revolutions."
Yelena Bondar: "They asked whether we were taught how to organize velvet revolutions."
Another journalist has come under pressure by the authorities in Tashkent, in a fashion that has become familiar to independent reporters who dare overstep boundaries set by officials.

Yelena Bondar, a 23-year-old freelance journalist and Uzbek citizen, faces misdemeanor charges of failing to fully declare goods upon her arrival at Tashkent's international airport.

The airport's customs department issued the following statement:

"During the search of Elena Bondar's hand luggage, the following items were found that were not declared by her on the customs' declaration form and also during verbal questioning: 3 DVDs, a compact disc, 4 memory sticks and 2 videocassettes."

Bondar was briefly detained at the airport on August 22 upon her return from Bishkek, where she attended a journalism course organized for young Central Asian reporters by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The journalist told local media that she was held for some four hours, during which border guards, customs officers, and other officials searched her luggage and confiscated the discs and memory sticks.

Bondar said she believes officials at the airport knew of her return from Bishkek and "were prepared" to find a pretext for detaining and questioning her.

A few days later, Bondar was summoned by officials, who questioned the reporter about her trip to Bishkek and the content of the 10-week journalism course.

"They asked whether we were taught how to organize velvet revolutions," the journalist told, an independent news site.

Bondar said she was asked to sign a pledge that she would not leave the country and was told that the content of information in the discs and memory cards was being analyzed by "experts."

Bondar has said the information consists of several articles from regional papers, a draft of a video report on art, and a few photos taken in Bishkek.

The charge of failing to declare goods to customs officials carries a financial penalty, but this is not the main concern of Bondar and free-media advocates in Central Asia.

The way Bondar was detained, as well as the charges, are all too familiar to Uzbek journalists.

Umida Niyazova, an independent reporter, was questioned in a similar fashion at Tashkent airport in 2006 and accused of failing to declare her portable computer. Niyazova, too, was returning from an OSCE-sponsored seminar for Central Asian journalists in Bishkek.

She was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of illegally entering the country, carrying contraband, and fostering unrest with the help of foreign funding. One week later, an appeals court upheld the verdict but suspended the sentence and she was released.

Last year, Umida Ahmedova, an Uzbek photographer and documentary filmmaker, had the content of her work "analyzed."

Ahmedova was found guilty of slandering and insulting the Uzbek people for her depiction of the lives of ordinary people in Uzbekistan. Ahmedova, who faced up to three years' imprisonment for the conviction, was granted amnesty.

Engaging in independent journalism comes at a high price in Uzbekistan, where the government has tightened its grip on the media, especially after its bloody response to the 2005 popular uprising in the eastern city of Andijon.

The situation led many leading Uzbek journalists, including Galima Bukharbaeva and Natalya Bushueva, to leave the country. Journalist Jamshid Karimov -- a nephew of Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- was placed in a psychiatric clinic for criticizing government policies.

The list of journalists persecuted by Uzbek authorities is long, and expanding.

The government has closed down the offices of international media organizations in Tashkent, including the BBC, Voice of America, and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, among others., a news agency that employed Elena Bondar as a freelance contributor during her student years, has expressed concern over the authorities' handling of Bondar.

-- Farangis Najibullah