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Uzbek Officials Tell Brutal 'Vigilantes' To Keep It Offline
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A homophobic gang assaults a gay technical-school student in Fargona, Uzbekistan, a country where sexual activity between men is a crime -- stripping the victim naked, beating him with a stick, and forcing him to insert a beer bottle into his anus, then posting video of the attack on the Internet.

Several men force an Uzbek woman to confess that she has worked as a prostitute while they film her for a “shame video” distributed on social-media networks.

Angry shopkeepers at a clothing market in Urganch accuse a teenage girl of theft and take the law into their own hands -- stripping her naked from the waist up, beating and kicking her, and forcing her onto the street while a man who encourages the attack shoots a video that goes viral in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

All are examples of so-called vigilante videos posted recently to the Internet from Uzbekistan -- incidents in which self-appointed posses of citizens armed with smartphones, and sometimes weapons, attacked and humiliated suspects rather than report them to law enforcement for the authorities to judge.

It’s impossible to independently confirm whether mob attacks against suspected wrongdoers are on the rise in Uzbekistan, or even whether authorities are doing anything to address the problem.

The government in Tashkent does not keep statistics on vigilante attacks and won’t comment on the issue.

But with several recent Uzbek "vigilante" videos going viral in other countries, authorities say they are concerned about the impact the footage is having on Uzbekistan’s reputation.

As a result, they’ve launched a campaign to discourage such people from posting videos of their attacks on the Internet -- instructing neighborhood crime-watch activists “not to take the garbage out of the house for the outside world to see.”

The initiative is being conducted by regional officials, who rarely carry out public-awareness campaigns in Uzbekistan without instructions from senior government officials in the capital.

Public meetings have been called at schools to bring together teachers, local residents, and members of neighborhood committees known as mahalla residential-community associations.

One such meeting was held on November 4 at School Number 36 in Urganch, a regional capital in western Uzbekistan, after vigilante video from the city's clothing market was broadcast by Russia’s REN-TV channel and went viral.

Sayora Abdukarimova, chairwoman of the regional Committee for Women’s Issues, told teachers and mahalla activists at the meeting they must do everything they can to prevent videos of “internal issues” from circulating on the Internet.

Abdukarimova also instructed those at the meeting to spread the word about the importance of preventing Uzbek vigilante videos from been seen outside of Uzbekistan.

The images come at a particularly sensitive time for Uzbekistan, which has spent most of the past three decades of independence lumbering under accusations of egregious rights violations and authoritarian excess. Tashkent has been on an outreach offensive since President Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded Islam Karimov after the entrenched strongman died last year, pursuing a thaw with its neighbors, pledging to eliminate cumbersome "exit visas" for its citizens, and touting plans to resurrect inward-bound tourism.

The video from the Urganch clothing market shows more than a half dozen shopkeepers stripping the blouse and bra off of a 17-year-old girl and beating her after she allegedly tried to steal clothing.

The assault and alleged theft were never officially reported to police, although RFE/RL Uzbek Service interviews with shop owners at the market and a police officer who patrols the neighborhood confirm that the attack took place on October 7.

The police officer familiar with the attack, asking not to be identified, says thefts take place on a regular basis at the market and that “all sides involved” usually “take care of this themselves without referring cases to law enforcement officials.”

That's why investigations usually are not launched into such theft cases and statistics on vigilante attacks are not kept, the officer tells RFE/RL.

But Nigora Rajabova, a member of the Xorazm region’s Committee for Women’s Issues, insists the Urganch market video is a fake.

“The incident shown by REN-TV never took place,” Rajabova tells RFE/RL. “This video was created by our enemies. There was no vigilante attack at the clothing market nor at the agricultural market in Urganch. In general, these kinds of incidents never happen in the Xorazm region. Laws are respected in the region and all laws are implemented here. I repeat again, the video shown by REN-TV and spread by social media never took place in the Xorazm region. This is a provocation by our enemies.”

Ichan-kala in Khiva
Ichan-kala in Khiva

Gavharjon Solaeva, a travel agent who relies on income from tourists who visit the Xorazm region’s UNESCO World Heritage Site in Khiva, says authorities are concerned foreign travelers may avoid the region “after seeing this video” because they also would fear “vigilante attacks.”

“Our president recently visited Xorazm and made it clear that tourism must be developed here,” Solaeva says. “The president met with our newly appointed regional governor, Ilgizar Sobirov, and ordered him to develop tourism.”

Mahalla 'Crime Watch'

Experts say a group psychology for vigilante attacks in Uzbekistan stems from the long-time reliance of police on mahalla activists in local crime-prevention programs.

Uzbekistan’s mahalla committees are state-sanctioned neighborhood organizations that were reshaped from Soviet-era informant networks -- networks where residents would report suspicious behavior by neighbors to police and intelligence officials.

Tashkent psychologist Mahmudjon Yuldoshov tells RFE/RL that vigilantism “is one of the issues in a society where laws do not work mainly because of the society’s past.”

Murdo Ismailov, an Uzbek mahalla expert at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, notes that the most regularly conducted activity of mahalla activists -- nearly two-thirds of all volunteer work -- is within neighborhood “crime-prevention” and “night-watch” programs.

“One explanation is that Uzbekistan has seen dozens of terrorist attacks and radical religious intrusions in recent history,” leading government and police “to actively engage local citizens in crime prevention by organizing regular meetings and exercises,” Ismailov says.

“Whatever form such interactions take, it is clear that the majority of [mahalla associations] in Uzbekistan actively encourage residents to participate in vigilante group activities,” Islamilov adds.

Uzbek lawyer Ruhiddin Komilov
Uzbek lawyer Ruhiddin Komilov

Tashkent-based criminal attorney Ruhiddin Komilov says the apparent prevalence of vigilante attacks in Uzbekistan “proves that there is no trust in the legal system.”

“Since laws do not work, people decide that they are judges, investigators, and prosecutors themselves,” Komilov says. “As long as criminals are not punished [under the legal system] and there are doubts about the principle of inevitable punishment, then certainly, these kinds of situations will continue -- if not increase.”

Still, authorities in Tashkent have shown that they are prepared to detain and prosecute vigilantes who are reported in the most notorious cases -- like the horrific abuse of the gay student in Fargona that was recorded and posted online by his attackers on September 29.

Following reports by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service about that vigilante video, Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry announced on October 5 that it had arrested five men for the attack and confiscated their mobile phones as evidence.

Those suspects now await trial on charges of making violent death threats, attempting to drive a person to commit suicide, premeditated infliction of bodily harm, robbery, and hooliganism.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague; with reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
In January 2016, seven employees of Afghanistan's Tolo TV, the country’s largest private television network, were killed and 25 injured when a suicide bomber attacked a minibus.

The Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) militant group might be foes on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but off it they are united against a common enemy: the Afghan media.

Both extremist groups have threatened and deliberately targeted major TV and radio stations and their staff members recently across Afghanistan, carrying out deadly attacks that have killed dozens of journalists and media employees.

The attacks have made Afghanistan one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and forced media companies to adopt new security measures, although it is unclear if the violence has had a chilling effect on news coverage.

“They want to create fear among journalists so the media does not report their atrocities,” says Najib Sharifi, head of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), a local media watchdog. “They also want to capture headlines and assert their power and visibility. They want to silence the media because they see the media as a threat to their propaganda strategies.”

'Serving Infidels'

In what was arguably the most high-profile attack of its kind on a media organization in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber in January 2016 attacked a minibus and killed seven employees of Tolo TV, the country’s largest private television network.

Those killings came months after the Taliban said it no longer recognized Tolo TV and another major TV network, 1TV, as media outlets and considered them "military objectives.”

The fundamentalist militant group said the move was a direct response to the commercial networks' coverage of the Taliban’s brief takeover of the northern city of Kunduz in September 2015 -- specifically, their reports of Taliban fighters allegedly raping women at a female hostel there. The Taliban denied the reports, saying the coverage was an "example of propaganda by these satanic networks."

Since then, IS militants have adopted a similar strategy, and there have been several major attacks against media outlets. In May, IS militants attacked the building of state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Among the six people killed were four RTA employees, including a driver, a guard, and two technical personnel, as well as two policemen.

Afghan security officers rescue an employee of state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) after Islamic State militants attacked the station in Jalalabad in May 2017. Four RTA employees were killed.
Afghan security officers rescue an employee of state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) after Islamic State militants attacked the station in Jalalabad in May 2017. Four RTA employees were killed.

On November 7, gunmen killed a security guard and opened fire on the staff of Shamshad TV, a private television station in Kabul, in an attack that was claimed by IS militants.

The IS-affiliated Voice of the Caliphate radio station, which broadcasts in eastern Afghanistan, warned it would continue to target media outlets and their journalists if they did not stop “serving infidels,” a reference to foreigners. The broadcast said the group was “monitoring your actions and are well aware of your evil intentions and plans.”

“Propaganda is a big pillar of the war being waged by the Taliban and IS,” says Sharifi. “They want their narratives to dominate the political and military landscape. They see the media as a big obstacle to advancing their propaganda goals, so they use coercion to silence the media and make them resort to self-censorship.”

Journalists [in Afghanistan] are conscious of the implications of critical reporting. The media is consciously and unconsciously self-censoring. Sometimes, the media may not run a story because they are afraid of the security implications.”
-- Kabul-based BBC journalist

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, says the attacks are also designed to inspire new recruits.

“A public show of brutality both inspires and intimidates,” he says.

Since IS militants emerged in Afghanistan in 2015, they have fought deadly clashes with the Taliban in the country’s east and south, although they have also conducted joint operations against Afghan security forces. Many IS fighters in Afghanistan are former members of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

'Self-Censoring'

Lotfullah Najafizada, the director of Tolo News, says the 2016 attack has not affected the news channel’s coverage, although it has prompted its staff to be on heightened alert.

“The attack and the threats thereafter have certainly changed the way we operate from a security perspective, but not the way we report as an independent news channel,” Najafizada said.

But a BBC journalist in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, says the attacks have taken a toll on the media.

The staff of Shamshad TV react after they were rescued by security forces following an attack by Islamic State militants at the station in Kabul on November 7. A security guard was killed in the attack.
The staff of Shamshad TV react after they were rescued by security forces following an attack by Islamic State militants at the station in Kabul on November 7. A security guard was killed in the attack.

“Journalists are conscious of the implications of critical reporting,” says the Kabul-based journalist. “The media is consciously and unconsciously self-censoring. Sometimes, the media may not run a story because they are afraid of the security implications.”

Violence Against Reporters

Afghanistan's media development is often cited as one of the biggest achievements of the past decade, following years of Taliban strictures or outright prohibitions on all forms of music and television, as well as independently reported news.

A relative mourns alongside the body of Saeed Jawad Hossini, 29, who was killed in the suicide attack on the Tolo TV minibus in January 2016.
A relative mourns alongside the body of Saeed Jawad Hossini, 29, who was killed in the suicide attack on the Tolo TV minibus in January 2016.

Despite the gains, independent media have come under constant attack and pressure not only from militants but also from religious leaders, ex-warlords, and sometimes even the government itself.

International media watchdogs have said militants have greatly contributed to the climate of fear by explicitly targeting journalists for reporting deemed unfavorable and have condemned the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for crimes of violence against media personnel in Afghanistan.

According to a report issued by the AJSC in July, in the first six months of 2017, 10 journalists were killed and 73 cases of violence had been reported including "killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention," marking a 35 percent increase over the same period last year.

AJSC said at least 13 journalists and media personnel were killed in 2016. In 2015, the figure was four, said the watchdog.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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