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Freedom with Disclaimers: How Does the Mass Media of Uzbekistan Work?

«In Uzbekistan there are critically few media outlets created by the journalists themselves and who have little international expertise and knowledge», – notes Darina Solod, journalist from Uzbekistan, in her article for CABAR.asia.

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Since 2016, Uzbekistan has embarked on the modernization and liberalization of the state. According to statements from the rostrum, these changes affect all sectors of life, including journalism – the new government declared that it wants to see free and strong media.

However, it is still not clear to which extent these statements are backed up by actions, and is the administration of Mirziyoyev really interested in emergence of the fourth power.

Why haven’t the mass media developed?

In order to understand the current state of the country’s mass media, as well as the current situation with freedom of speech, one needs to go back for 13 years – to 2005. Sometime after the Andijan events, Uzbekistan began to isolate itself from the world – first, almost all international organizations left the country, representative offices of foreign mass media entities closed, and quite strict censorship reigned.

In such conditions, there was no need to talk about media development – only those who agreed with the official position in everything or those who tried to open and work in specialized media remained in the country. For many years, there were practically no political and economic media, and practically no social issues were raised in Uzbekistan.

In addition, it is very interesting that there is still no clear division of social and political issues in the country, and as a rule, the discussion or attempt to resolve the former affects the latter one way or another.

The situation radically changed in 2016, after the death of Islam Karimov. Mass media, bloggers, and other media personalities have received a certain amount of publicity, which allows them to speak out loud about current problems, express dissatisfaction and cover certain problems in the country. However, is it possible to talk about complete freedom of speech in Uzbekistan?

Did Karimov’s death change the current situation?

While the rest of the Central Asian countries were developing in one way or another, Uzbekistan was stagnant, not only from a professional point of view, but also from educational. And now our country is experiencing the period that Russia, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan have long passed. This is reflected in the selection and coverage of topics, work with sources and still a high level of self-censorship – not all topics are raised and discussed.

Everything related to the president’s family, attempts of doing investigations or analytics is still developing very slowly. The reason for this is not only concerns for personal security, but also lack of instruments.

It is possible to interfere with work in different ways – not necessarily threats or pressure through the State Security Service. The press services of many departments are extremely reluctant to contact and do not provide the requested information. There are frequent cases when certain press secretaries prefer to work with one media, providing it with information and inviting the rest of the media to take texts from one source. It’s practically impossible to influence this situation – in order for officials and departments to start working with the media, the president’s remarks are not enough, precedents are needed that can force authorities to fulfill their duties.

A separate point is the availability of tools for investigations. In Uzbekistan, the law on civil servants still does not work, which would oblige officials to declare their income and register family members and distant relatives. This complicates any work with investigations – it is almost impossible to establish family ties of civil servants in view of the same names and extended family ties, which are almost never registered.

The same situation can be seen with various databases – national inventory database, open data, public procurement databases and even state statistics is far from always complete, periodically tends to disappear from sites, or is not filled at all by the responsible authorities.

Therefore, even with indirect facts in hand, journalists, as a rule, cannot prove their hypothesis. In addition, the Law on Mass Media of the Republic of Uzbekistan does not say anything about the work of an undercover journalist, therefore, without the first applicant it will not be clear how safe it is to deceive officials in order to obtain information for investigation.

Picket in Moscow at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in defense of the rights of photojournalists in 2012. Photo: ridus.ru

How many of us are here – free?

In general, the situation with the number of media sources is also not very optimistic – by the end of 2018, there were 1,662 media sources throughout the country, of which 495 belong to the category of websites. But only a few dozens of them have at least some authority and can positively influence the solution of certain problems. Gazeta.uz can be attributed to them from Russian-speaking, and Kun.uz, Daryo.uz from Uzbek-speaking.

Certainly, some regional media can influence everyday issues in their regions, but the gap between the capital and the regions is so wide that colleagues may not even be aware of each other.

In some publishing houses, owners find themselves in close kinship with officials of one category or another, which also calls into question their objectivity and ability to work without censorship.

Another issue that does not give us to speak about complete freedom of speech – financial dependence. Almost all media are extremely dependent on views, as selling ads is the only legal way to make a living. However, the advertising market is still small, and over the past 13 years, it, like everything else in the country, has also been in stagnation. Local patrons and businessmen are not interested in investing and donor assistance to the media, and work of international donors in the Republic is not allowed. The mass media entities do not have the right to accept grants and assistance from international organizations. Such rules exist only in Uzbekistan and partially in the Russian Federation, where media working with foreign money are obliged to mark themselves as “foreign agents”.

The lack of financial independence puts the mass media entity in an uncomfortable position – if the publishing house has an investor, then it can oppose certain topics or materials that could harm its business relationship. In some publishing houses, owners find themselves in close kinship with officials of one category or another, which also calls into question their objectivity and ability to work without censorship.

Also, the role of the newly created Information and Mass Communication Agency (IMCA) is still not clear. Regular meetings and discussions of current media laws in the IMCA itself are available only to a circle of people loyal to him. The Agency does not always affect the press services in favor of journalists.

In addition, an important fact is that in Uzbekistan there are critically few media outlets created by the journalists themselves and who have little international expertise and knowledge. Almost all existing media belong either to businessmen or to people who are in close relations with officials. This means that even with a great desire, journalists working in such editorial offices are obliged to look back at the interests of the owner.

Therefore, the main topics within the country are mass demolitions, rare economic columns and coverage of the rights of children and women. Meanwhile, we cannot talk about investigations, fact-checks, quality analytics and absence of self-censorship.

However, as mentioned above, the media entities of Uzbekistan are only now undergoing a period of formation. While the developing countries, including our closest neighbors, already know how to deal with sensitive topics, have faced lawsuits by the authorities and fought for their freedom, ours exists with a lot of reservations. I want to believe that we have to develop further, and history will not turn to the well-trodden path with the isolation of the country, “tightening the screws” and restoring censorship.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


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