Living in Cyber-Darkness

And the final featured article from the students as part of the “media freedoms in post-communist countries” series, this one describing media repression in Uzbekistan.


Image from the MIT Center for Civic Media

Ever since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, they have failed to maintain any sort of consistent media freedom. In a country where nearly all local media is directly run by or associated with the state, it’s no wonder that Uzbekistan ranks 164 out of 179 according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Since the Andijan Massacre in 2005, foreign media has been expelled at such a rate that they are virtually non-existent in Uzbekistan, and local media exposed to increasingly more harassment.

Karimov has kept a tight hold on Uzbekistan since his rise in 1991. The state owns the major media outlets, such as the only Internet provider, Uztelecom, which has the right and ability to censor, restrict, block, and control all Internet access and international phone calls at the will of the state.  When we think about how much information we glean from the Internet, an entirely state-proctored connection is hardly one step short of brainwashing. Want to read the New York Times? Blocked. BBC? Yeah, right. Deutsche Welle? Nope. Any other Western or independent news sites? Blocked, blocked, blocked.

In a similar way, newspapers are all printed in government-owned facilities, making it easy for them to be properly scanned and issued to the liking of the State. The majority of television broadcasting comes from only four state-owned channels, and the few that aren’t state owned allegedly report the same news anyway. And even if there were independent outlets, journalists who express any opinion that could be seen by any person as slightly contrary to the opinion of the state face harassment, persecution, jailing, or even torture.

The alarming thing about all of this? Uzbek law specifically guarantees the freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the freedom of other media, yet we find journalists and reporters being placed in prison for seemingly random (and often questionable) charges. A good example of this is Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a human rights activist who has served 5 years of a 10-year sentence. He was arrested for possession of drugs found in his vehicle shortly after he picked it up from the shop. A quick trial by the Uzbek Supreme Court found him guilty, though they never stated on what grounds, since evidence shows that he never consumed the drugs. He is now suffering illness and is hospitalized, but the International Committee of the Red Cross is not allowed to see him. At least 8 other Uzbek journalists are currently being held as prisoners because of their work, two of which have been jailed since 1999. Even a popular comedy group was forced to leave television due to jokes that were accused of being too “inappropriate” and “offensive”.

Because of this control, the government has the ability to keep their people in complete darkness on whatever issues they so choose, and they do this through a strategic manipulation of the media.  For instance, on the same day and approximate time of University entrance testing, the government decided to shut down Internet and text messaging in the entire country. The reason? 431,000 students, and only 56,000 openings in the countries universities leads to a lot of cheating, bribery, and manipulation. While the goal of this is to cut down on student cheating on the national exams, the same tactics are used to block opposition websites and monitor web usage.

Though there have been promises by the Uzbek government of Media reform, it is clear that there is a great fear preventing Uzbekistan from following through with this. The government thinks that by limiting the information the public receives, you can control the thoughts that the public thinks. Though this may be true to some extent, but the fact that the government is so very scared sheds light on the accompanying fact that they know there are people out there who desire change. Some of this is clear through social media, in which some free thoughts escape despite the valiant efforts to censor that as well. The government knows that to maintain such a repressive power, thoughts of freedom must be muffled, and they will do whatever it takes to see that through.



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