Vienna, February 16 – Uzbekistan is at risk of becoming a black hole as far as news is concerned given that the number of foreign journalists accredited there has fallen by more than half since the Andijon crackdown of May 2005, and Tashkent has stepped up its repression of domestic journalists as well.
In an article posted on the Fergananews.com site this week, Aleksey Volosevich, who is based in Tashkent, says there were approximately 80 foreign journalists accredited in Uzbekistan at the time of Andijon. A year ago, there were 38, and now that figure has declined to 33 in the most populous country in Central Asia (www.fergananews.com/article.php?id=6899).
Fro many reasons, including the financial difficulties of many news agencies, the number of foreign correspondents around the world has declined, forcing those who want to keep track of developments in any country to rely more heavily than they did in the past on journalists of the country involved.
In many places, these journalists are more than able to fill the gap, but in Uzbekistan, where the government continues to pursue a repressive policy against journalists and the media, the departure of the foreign journalists who have often provided both a model and a defense for responsible journalism is especially serious.
Volosevich says there are five representatives of the Russian media, two correspondents of Reuters who are accredited but not resident in Uzbekistan, two BBC journalists, one from Agence France Presse, one from the Belgian paper “Le Soir,” seven from China, five from Turkey, three each from Kazakh, Iranian, and Azerbaijani outlets and one from Kyrgyzstan.
Many of those who do have accreditation are nonetheless only rarely coming to Tashkent. And this decline and their absence means that the press service of the Uzbekistan foreign ministry sometimes must work hard “to assemble eight to ten correspondents” at what are the increasingly infrequent press conferences of that institution.
The Uzbekistan authorities have accelerated this decline by stripping some of the foreign journalists of their accreditation. Rakhim Sultanov, a correspondent of Golos Rossii who had been working in Tashkent since 1994, for example, not long ago lost his accreditation, but despite repeated inquiries, Uzbek officials refused to tell him why.
In Uzbekistan, the loss of accreditation is a serious matter not only for foreign journalists but also for Uzbek ones, Voposevich notes, but it is not only Uzbekistan that is involved. According to an agreement between Tashkent and Moscow in 1998, “if a correspondent is not accredited,” he cannot be referred to as an accredited correspondent in either country’s media.
Under one interpretation, of course, this is simple accuracy, but under another – and that is how the Uzbek authorities choose to define the terms of this accord -- this provision can be used to block a journalist from getting paid for his work or even being able to publish his materials at all.
After the “color” or “velvet” revolutions, Uzbek officials adopted a policy which can only be described as “paranoid,” Volosevich says. Local journalists risk losing their accreditation or even their jobs if they go to a Western embassy without the prior approval of Tashkent.
In what he says is “not an exaggeration,” “if foreign correspondents are ‘neutralized’ by means of depriving them of their accreditation, then their local colleagues are not infrequently removed from their jobs for a single unsanctioned trip to Western or neighboring countries” whether or not they report about this or not.
The interconnectedness between Tashkent’s efforts to force out foreign journalists and to restrict the work of domestic ones was highlighted last year by a case brought against Vladimir Berezovsky of Vesti.uz, Malik Boboyev of VOA, and documentary photographer Umida Akhmedova, a case that drew international attention and combination.
But despite this condemnation, Tashkent had all three convicted, something that had the effect of harming “the authority and image of Uzbekistan,” precisely the offenses for which the three were charged. Unfortunately, Tashkent clearly cares more about defending itself by restricting the free flow of information than it does about its image and that basic human right.