Human rights groups are looking for some hard questions to be asked about issues such as political prisoners, torture, and forced child labor as Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake, Jr. meets with President Islam Karimov and other officials February 17-18 to discuss regional security and energy issues, the supply of the war in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network -- and human rights.
Yet increasingly, the small but brave independent press corps in Uzbekistan is under fire, as the Uzbek government has launched a string of libel lawsuits against reporters working for non-state Uzbek publications as well as for foreign news media, and also targeted the independent civic organizations providing sources for them. The space for independent questioning is shrinking.
Last year Voice of America reporter Abdumalik Boboyev was first intimidated, then indicted with charges that his critical reporting for VOA was "slandering the Uzbek people" -- a politicized notion that isn't even in the Uzbek criminal code. After some intensive private and public diplomacy on his case from the U.S. government, Boboyev was released, but even after an appeal and a meeting with Blake last November, he still had to pay a heavy fine of about $11,000 -- and of course remains with the threat of another suit always hanging over his head.
Aleksey Volosevich, a reporter for the independent online news service Fergananews.com (formerly ferghana.ru) warned this week that "no journalist is immune from defamation charges" and evidently there are fewer accredited foreign journalists as a result. Prior to the 2005 Andijan massacre, there were 80 foreign journalists in Tashkent; this number shrank to 38 last year and now stands at 33. Some return home after accreditation, and only 8-10 reporters might show up at a news conference these days, he said.
Last year, Vladimir Berezovsky, a Tashkent-based Russian correspondent for Parlamentskay Gazeta and editor of the vesti.uz news site was also charged with defamation, although eventually pardoned. A photographer and documentary film-maker, Umida Akhmedova, was similarly charged and fined.
Volosevich believes that because there was a public outcry about the attempts to prosecute Akhmedova, Boboyev and Berezovsky, the regime's hand has been stayed for a time, but fergananews.com. has obtained documents indicating that prosecutors prepared cases as far back as 2009 and are keeping them on the shelf for future use.
So the question remains: who will still be available to ask hard questions of both U.S. and Uzbek government officials this week?
Blake replied, “Unlike Time Magazine, the United States government is not in the business of doing ratings of our friends.”
Asked whether he thought any progress was being made on some of the Administration's priorities in Central Asia, particularly, political liberlization and human rights, Blake praised Kyrgyzstan's elections, and then said:
But in other countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I think there needs to be greater progress towards providing political space for their people and responding to the aspirations of their people. So these are things that we are helping those countries with and have a very good dialogue with those countries on.
The Asia Press reporter pressed further:
Meanwhile, many experts believe that lack of political and economic reforms and the growth of extremism, booming corruption and drug trafficking in Central Asian countries [are] marginalized. For example, today about 98 percent of all supplies through Northern Distribution Network going to Afghanistan runs through Uzbekistan which actually is not the most liberal country in the region. Don’t you think that ignoring these threats may create new problems for the United States?
Blake replied, "I wouldn't say that we're ignoring these threats", then went on to speak about events in Egypt and Tunisia and their implications. Unwilling to compare the regions, Blake nevertheless indicated that when leaders don’t respond to “the legitimate concerns of their people” then “they face instability”:
I think that the countries of Central Asia also need to be mindful of that and also need to be mindful of the need to open up political space, to continue to open up their economies so that they can provide job opportunities, to continue to ensure that they have the best possible education so that their young people are prepared and equipped to compete in the world, and to address issues like corruption which have a very corrosive effect on societies and on the faith of the people in their institutions and in their leaders.
A good place to start is by tolerating independent media.