Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the presidency of Uzbekistan 15 months ago, some important, if modest, signs of hope have emerged following decades of human rights abuses. But it’s a mixed picture.
Look at freedom of expression and media. On one hand, registered media outlets in Uzbekistan have begun to cover politically sensitive topics: the popular Uzbek-language daily Kun.uz, for example, has written about officials forcing public sector workers and students to pick cotton, despite an official ban on such mobilization. Reporting on this would have been unthinkable under the late president, Islam Karimov.Moreover, several journalists I met working for outlets still blocked in Uzbekistan told me they can now report on more sensitive topics, such as the president’s own family.
On the other hand, journalists are still arrested. In September, security services detained journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev on a politically motivated charge. He faces 20 years imprisonment and has been denied access to his family and attorney for nearly three months.
Police detained writer Nurullo Otahonov after he returned to the country following two years of exile. He was charged with extremism for his book, Bu Kunlar (“These Days”), which criticized Karimov, and is still under house arrest. A third blogger, Hayot Nasretdinov, was arrested in October on charges similar to those facing Abdullaev.
Also, Uzbekistan’s internet is still highly censored. Many websites are blocked, including independent media, Fergana and Radio Ozodlik.
The dual nature of the country’s conflicted approach to press freedom hit me personally last month when the popular Russian-language website, Podrobno.uz, interviewed me about the work of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan.
The most notable thing about the interview is that it happened at all. No officially registered media outlet has ever covered the work of an independent human rights group – except to recount official denials of our critical reports.
But the resulting story reveals just how far Uzbekistan has to go.
Podrobno.uz included everything I said about the positive changes we documented, such as the release of political prisoners. But the story omitted all the criticisms I made about the recent arrests of journalists, of widespread torture, of forced labor, and of restrictions on civil society.
In short, self-censorship is still alive and well in Uzbekistan.
The incident reminds us that passing laws and announcing reforms do not alone amount to meaningful change. President Mirziyoyev should make clear that criticisms of government policies will not merely be tolerated, but welcomed. This is the only way to move beyond the dark legacy of the past.