Users of Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled Internet are accustomed to hearing officials tell them that Western culture is harmful and its influence must be contained.
So they might wonder why their country keeps producing knock-off social networking websites, clones of modern Western culture. The latest is Bamboo, rolled out this week as an Uzbek answer to Twitter using the motto "One Country, One Network!"
Bamboo.uz was developed exclusively for Uzbeks, its developers said on the website (though the interface is available in 14 languages). The main difference from Twitter is that users can be more verbose: Bamboo messages can be up to 700 characters long, five times longer than messages on Twitter. Otherwise, the newsfeed and interface look almost identical to Twitter. Popular topics trend with hashtags, just like the ones Twitter uses.
Programmers in Uzbekistan, which Reporters Without Borders annually ranks an "Enemy of the Internet,” have previously launched local versions of Facebook, apparently with the government’s encouragement. State television has called social media a tool foreign powers use to foment revolution in former-Soviet states, but said local versions like Muloqot.uz and Sinfdosh.uz, "improve the moral and physical health of youth and form high morals."
It turns out the rumors are true: Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan can boogie. (And maybe he likes a tipple.)
Videos that appeared online this week shows the Tajik strongman moving gracefully around a gilded ballroom, arms outstretched, wrists flicking, as he performs some fast-footed local dance moves.
In one video, the president belts out a duet (some might encourage him to stick to dancing) as the powerful Dushanbe mayor and potential rival Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev drifts in and out of the frame clapping his hands. In the background, Rakhmon’s eldest son stands stone-faced, hand over chest, with a veiled bride.
The videos were shot, says CA-news.org, in June 2009 at the wedding of Rustam Emomali, Rakhmon’s son and presumed heir. Coincidence, or perhaps not, this week YouTube was blocked again in Tajikistan. Users report the video-sharing site is down for the third time in the past year.
The head of Tajikistan’s Association of Internet Providers, Asomiddin Atoev, told RIA Novosti that the order to block the site came from the state communications agency. As is customary, the communications agency is not disclosing its reasoning. Over the past year the agency has regularly blocked YouTube and Facebook, as well as a host of critical news sites, often with enigmatic explanations: for example, claiming the site needs “prophylactic maintenance.” If the YouTube ban is indeed related the wedding videos, it is still unclear whether the move would have been ordered by Rakhmon himself or some over-cautious sycophants.
The chief of Tajikistan’s communications agency says he has blocked Facebook access in the country because Internet users were begging him to shut that “hotbed of libel.” And he wants a few words with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier Beg Zukhurov denied any blockade, saying he could log onto Facebook just fine and that perhaps some Internet providers were having technical problems. But on November 27 he admitted he gave the order: "Public figures have talked to me about this several times. I've had a lot of calls from outraged Tajik residents who ask me to shut down Facebook," RIA Novosti quotes Zukhurov as saying.
He added that a group of volunteer Internet monitors had described numerous violations (of what, it’s unclear). "Government heads are being insulted on the site and these statements are being made by fake users. Some people are clearly getting paid good money for this," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
In August, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote to Zukhurov of its “profound concern” that he was creating a group of Internet monitors accountable to him and not the courts. “Such a system of control could lead to the wholesale blocking of online publications and websites. While we agree defamation should be penalized, it should be dealt with by the courts, where defendants can put their case and have the right of appeal,” RSF wrote.
The defendant in this case appears to be the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
Authorities in Tajikistan are ramping up efforts to keep information about recent fighting in the mountainous east from getting out.
Telephone and Internet connections to Gorno-Badakhshan, scene of heavy fighting July 24 between government forces and local rebels, remain cut for a third day. Asia-Plus, the country’s largest independent news agency, is blocked. Now several Internet service providers have blocked YouTube, users in Dushanbe confirm, as unauthenticated photos of dead soldiers and burning houses are circulating by email.
Officials still insist there were no civilian casualties in the clashes, which took place in the regional capital, Khorog, a town of some 30,000 on the Afghanistan border. Officially, 42 died: 12 government soldiers and 30 militants. But Asia-Plus and Radio Ozodi report dozens of civilian casualties.
Few will believe the official explanation given today by the head of the state communication service, Beg Zukhurov, that a stray bullet took out all communication links with Gorno-Badakhshan. Instead, his comments are likely to fuel increasing concerns by people unable to reach their loved ones. With rumors spreading quickly, many are asking what the government has to hide.
In case anyone still doubts that a 1,400-year-old religion is compatible with a 21st-century social-networking tool, a new Twitter-based project in Kyrgyzstan should put those doubts to rest.
On July 20, the country’s Muslims joined with millions of their co-religionists across the world in marking the start of Ramadan, Islam’s annual holy month of fasting, self-sacrifice and contemplation.
Sticking to the rules of the fast – which forbid eating or drinking during daylight hours – can tax even the fittest of the faithful in Central Asia, where summer temperatures regularly rise above 30 Celsius and the sun stays out from before 6 a.m. until after 8 p.m.
But this year those new to Ramazan, as it is called in Kyrgyzstan, or simply worried about missing their pre-dawn breakfast, can sign up for a free text-messaging service that will send morning and evening reminders about prayer and meal times, as well as 140-character-max hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) and ayahs (Koranic verses) about the importance of love, attentiveness, loyalty, caring, knowledge and Ramadan itself.
The new Russian-language resource, called @RamazanTime, was the brainchild of a 22-year-old Bishkek resident whose two female friends, aged 21 and 22, then joined her as co-writers.
“We created this service to morally support our compatriots who are planning to keep the fast,” the idea's author wrote in an email to EurasiaNet.org. (She asked that neither her name nor her friends’ be printed as they were doing this “not to promote ourselves, but to gain Allah’s pleasure and motivate others.”)
So goes the PR blurb for a new social networking site designed for Internet-unfriendly Uzbekistan, but, say critics, it might as well read “our clone of Facebook.”
YouFace.uz has an interface strikingly similar to its famous counterpart: from the blue background and logo touting free-of-charge access (YouFace: “It will always be free”; Facebook: “It’s free and always will be”) to the almost identical user layout.
In an ironic twist, the launch comes 18 months after the NBC show 30 Rock spoofed social networking platforms with a fictional site called – you guessed it – YouFace.
The real, Uzbek YouFace has so far attracted 332 users, and on May 31 they were avidly debating (in Russian and Uzbek) whether the Facebook clone would take off.
“A shining example of how a lemon can be turned into lemonade,” commented one.
“You shouldn’t steal from someone else,” snapped another.
Ayyub Abdulloh, 22, says the site is his brainchild, set up with four sponsors – but financial issues are “private.”
In an online YouFace chat with EurasiaNet.org, he defended it against plagiarism charges: “It is not similar [to] Facebook, but just looks like that.” He pointed out that cars have similarities which create “comfort for drivers,” and in the same vein “websites must be comfortable too.”
Officials in Tajikistan are heaping new confusion onto the ongoing shutdown of Facebook. While users triumphantly explain to each other how to access the site through proxy servers, a group close to President Emomali Rakhmon has suggested that Tajikistan should build its own social network to promote “the ideals and national values of the Tajik people.”
The state agency in charge of IT and telecommunications has claimed the March 2-3 block – condemned by a Tajik Internet lobby and US-based Freedom House – is “temporary” and for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state Communications Service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
Zukhurov promised to restore the Facebook connection “soon.” (Meanwhile, what seems to be a copy of his order is circulating on – you guessed it – Facebook.)
Authorities in Tajikistan have blocked access to Facebook and several Russian-language news websites, apparently trying to stem mounting online criticism of long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon. Since the uprisings across the Arab world in the past year, which authorities throughout Central Asia blame on social networks such as Facebook, the former Soviet region's autocrats have stepped up Internet restrictions, while citizens increasingly turn to social networks to discuss their frustrations.
The latest crackdown reportedly began after a website called Zvezda.ru published a withering critique of Rakhmon entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of Revolution,” which argued the president is “incompetent” and presides over a corrupt regime where his family has gained control over every state asset down to the last telephone pole. The article predicts mass unrest. “Rakhmon’s regime has lead the country to complete devastation, ruin and terrible poverty,” wrote Sergey Strokan, a staffer with the heavyweight Russian daily Kommersant.
Under the initially reported scenario, Abdujalilova returned in November to her native Andijan Province on a visit home from studying abroad in Germany, after which she was picked up the police.
Perplexed by what might have caused security services to single out Abdujalilova, some speculated that she may have come to the attention of authorities through her Facebook account, which identified her as a supporter of the People's Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU). The movement was formed in May from a number of foreign-based Uzbek political and rights organizations and has unambiguously stated its goal as being the downfall of President Islam Karimov's regime.
Good news for singles in Kazakhstan – a new dating site promises to bring lonely hearts together, and – unlike many such forums which are simply an excuse to peddle sex – nikah.imam.kz has lofty aims: It seeks to help pious Muslims find their other half.
Along with information about attributes such as height, eye color and ethnicity, the site offers users the chance to provide information about their views on questions pertinent to Islam.
Answers to “how do you feel about the hijab?” range from “not obligatory” (Aynur, a 27-year old female from Almaty) to “only in the mosque” (Asiya, a 20-year-old female from Petropavlovsk) and “obligatory for women” (Rakhat, a 22-year-old male from Pavlodar, and Nazyma, a 35-year-old female from Almaty).
The photos accompanying the would-be daters’ profiles show a range of attitudes to the headscarf among the women – some have their heads uncovered, some are wearing headscarves and some are in the full niqab.
Another question asks users how they feel about polygamy, which – as RFE/RL reported earlier this year – is on the rise in Kazakhstan. Answers range from “negative” (Asem, a 20-year-old female from Petropavlovsk), “I don’t know” (Akmalya, a 20-year-old female from Almaty), to “normal” (Rauan, a 26-year-old male from Karaganda, and Roza, a 26-year-old convert to Islam from Almaty).