As headlines go, this one might not look especially exciting; “What Can We Expect from the Liberalization of the Foreign Currency Market?”
But the article, by respected economist Yuliy Yusupov, became an instant sensation when it was published January 17 by the Uzbekistan-focused online business news outlet Kommersant.uz.
Tight official controls over currency and trade — and the flourishing of a black economy in both these areas — had made the subject off-limits for any local media in the days of the late President Islam Karimov. Thus, it is no surprise that the January 17 article touched off a flurry of social media chatter among Uzbek news consumers.
The appearance of the piece offers evidence that, slowly and tentatively, some news outlets in Uzbekistan are dabbling with easing their policy of self-censorship on sensitive topics. Yusupov said he was initially approached by Kommersant.uz to write the article, but that they were surprised by the boldness of what they got back.
“They wavered over [the article] for a long time. Nobody has yet written such a candid piece in the press. Especially since they have experience of ‘senior comrades’ telling them what they could and could not write,” Yusupov told EurasiaNet.org.
Eventually, the website relented and even published two more similar articles by Yusupov.
“Kommersant overcame the self-censorship, good for them. We will definitely continue, this is just the beginning,” Yusupov said. “So far, the higher-ups are quiet. Let’s hope for the best.”
Yusupov’s most recent article, published on February 6, is titled; “About the Danger of Protectionism.” The piece is, in effect, a frontal assault on a policy long favored by Karimov.
Such articles would struggle to stand out in a Western business publication, but critical analyses of economic policies — in particular, discussion of how badly the government has handled the economy — have long been a no-go area for reporters in Uzbekistan.
Censorship is in theory proscribed by law in Uzbekistan. On paper, existing legislation provides for expansive editorial freedoms. One passage in the law regulating media activity states that “nobody has the right to demand prior approval for published material, or to demand changes to a text, or its removal from circulation.”
In reality, those few reporters that have been foolhardy enough to flout the rule on self-censorship have invariably been summoned to prosecutors’ offices, where they have been subjected to intimidation and harassment.
Controls tend to be even stronger on reporters in the regions, and will likely remain so for some time.
In the city of Samarkand, reporter Toshpulat Rakhmatullayev recently wrote a piece on news website Nuz.uz titled; “Who Will Free Samarkand of the Powers of Darkness?” The article examines the spate of power shortages that has been afflicting his region of late, and, on the face of, is quite standard, if heavily opinionated. In addition to describing the routine blackouts occurring in Samarkand — carefully tabulating how many times the power went out — Rakhmatullayev also recounts his exchanges with government officials.
“It is not difficult to note that between the power going out and going back on again, there would be intervals of one to three minutes. You can imagine how this grates the nerves. My friend, who has a generator at home, says that as soon as he gets to his device, they turn the light back on,” Rakhmatullayev wrote.
The report duly earned Rakhmatullayev a summons to the prosecutor’s office. But, undeterred, the journalist penned another piece on February 1 headlined; “Why Should Journalists Suffer for Telling the Truth?”
“I had to tell this person from the prosecutor’s office … that it is necessary to distinguish between complaining and journalism. I did not complain, but I just raised the problem of electricity supply to Samarkand, which is a problem that is of concern to thousands of people,” Rakhmatullayev wrote.
Letters from Samarkand residents to the presidential website, which recently introduced a function allowing citizens to write in directly with complaints, have proven of little use in alleviating the problem, Rakhmatullayev noted. He added that when he complained to local officials, they did nothing but try to gather incriminating information about him.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s ascendancy to power, articles have appeared in the Uzbek press detailing the everyday problems affecting citizens. These concern primarily shortages of electricity, gas, water and employment. It is Mirziyoyev himself who has encouraged this sudden surge of emboldened criticism by publicly urging officials to pay more heed to the pleas of ordinary citizens, and to discuss them in newspapers and Internet publications.
“You too should act from below and demand solutions to your problems,” the president told an audience during a meeting with members of the public in January in the semiautonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.
Mirziyoyev has also been effecting some changes at the top.
On February 3, he appointed a new head of the national television and radio broadcaster — a former minister for information technology and communication development, Hurshid Mirzahidov. The outgoing head of the broadcaster, Alisher Hadjaev, who had filled the position since December 2005, was a high-ranking officer in the National Security Service, or SNB.
The SNB has in the decades since independence amassed a vast army of operatives and extended its influence into all areas of life with a view to consolidating the authority of the ruling elite.
Under Hadjaev, state television was used as a platform for the propagation of the late President Karimov’s political programs and ideology. Even mild criticism of any aspects of government policy disappeared from the airwaves, and progressive-minded journalists were dismissed. Despite being one of the largest broadcasters in the region, Uzbekistan’s national state television and radio company has no correspondents anywhere across the former Soviet Union and focuses entirely on domestic developments.
In addition to hammering home state ideology, the government-run broadcaster was also used to target perceived opponents of the authorities, or the country itself.
For example, in 2012, at the height of a smear campaign targeting Turkish businesses in Uzbekistan, the state broadcaster pulled the plug on popular Turkish TV shows, substituting them with South Korean soap operas instead.
And it was during the Hadjaev era that the TV evening bulletin earned the mocking unofficial nickname of “News from Heaven.”