Independent media are non-existent in Uzbekistan. Censorship is pervasive, specifically self-censorship out of fear of the consequences of writing or broadcasting anything the regime might not approve of. Everyone knows the grimmest of fates awaits those who cross well-understood lines, such as publishing information about the government's use of millions children to pick cotton by force every year, the systematic use of torture by the security services, or the May 2005 Andijan massacre, when the authorities shot dead hundreds of civilian protesters in that eastern city.
These subjects are taboo, and to write or broadcast material about them -- or to criticise President Islam Karimov in any way -- is met with a harsh response. Journalists who have criticised the regime have been dealt with like opposition political figures or human rights activists: they have been imprisoned, tortured and killed. Others are forced into exile by such draconian threats.
The regime's approach to the internet is no different from its approach toward TV, radio and newspapers. It is deeply paranoid about free media, and its efforts to strangle free speech online are extensive, using both threats and coercive action against journalists and activists who try to work within the country, and blocking many websites hosted abroad.
Many post-Communist states took to the internet with great enthusiasm in the 1990s. Countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia all quickly developed competitive media markets, a free press and a rich and vibrant collection of online publications now forming an integral part of the public debate in those countries. Even Russia has a relatively healthy and influential new media sector, if not exactly as free and open as some of its neighbours.
Uzbekistan, by contrast, took only halting steps in the direction of online liberalisation. The state did establish several agencies to develop information technologies in the late 1990s and early years of this century, and some government officials went abroad to learn more. Unfortunately, it seems the authorities only wanted to learn enough about the new technology to stifle it. Uzbekistan today offers a laboratory for demonstrating how the Soviet Union would have handled the internet had the empire lived long enough to see the rise of the web, punishing dissidents mercilessly at home and attempting to prevent outside voices from getting into the country.
Silencing online freedom of speech at home
Intimidating journalists and others who dare to exercise freedom of speech inside the country is easy. Whether on paper or online, if the authorities know where you live, you don't have many options. A few recent individual cases are illustrative.
Alisher Saipov was an ethnic Uzbek journalist and editor in Kyrgyzstan. He reported for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, as well as the externally based website uznews.net. Saipov was also known for starting an Uzbek-language newspaper called Siyosat (Politics) and for his involvement in Erk (Freedom), a leading exile opposition party. He prominently criticised the Uzbek government and was and outspoken opponent of President Karimov, particularly during the 2007 presidential campaign, in which Karimov ran only against candidates who supported the incumbent openly. Almost one year ago, on 24 October 2007, he was shot dead by an unknown assailant in a busy street in Osh. His murder occurred about a month after a prime-time Uzbek TV programme on the Namangan Region TV channel attacked him fiercely, depicting him as "an ally of shady forces that want to destabilise the peaceful situation in Uzbekistan".
There are numerous strong indications that Uzbek security forces murdered Saipov. If this is the case, it would appear that the security organs, which are the key to keeping President Islam Karimov in power, are increasingly willing to move against any perceived danger, even if it involves pre-emptive strikes in foreign territory. This may be a sign not only of the ruthlessness of the regime but also of its increasing fragility.
Disturbingly, just a few months ago, the very same Namangan Region TV channel similarly vilified journalists working for RFE.
Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov is a human rights journalist who also reported for the independent website uznews.net, as well as freelancing for RFE/RL, VOA and IWPR. In June of this year, the police arrested him in the western town of Nukus on trumped-up charges of drug possession. His house was searched and his computer seized, with police supposedly uncovering literature of the Erk opposition party. After medical examinations showed he had not been taking drugs, the authorities changed the charges to selling drugs, which can have a 20-year jail term. Amnesty International has called Abdurakhmanov a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for carrying out his human rights activities and exercising his right to freedom of expression", calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
Djamshid Karimov, a journalist working with two external news websites, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net) and Ferghana.ru. After publishing a series of articles with Ferghana.ru about corruption within the local administration and the plight of peasant farmers in the Jizzak region in 2005, he came under increasing pressure and was eventually incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in October 2006. Karimov, nephew of the president, was never arrested or charged. Karimov's doctors have said he is a "well balanced man, in good health, intelligent and educated". It is believed the use of psychotropic drugs against his will in the hospital have serious damaged his health. Holding dissidents in mental facilities was a common practice in the Soviet Union.
Of course, online journalists are only one segment of those persecuted for exercising their freedom of speech in Uzbekistan. Even poets are not safe: Yusuf Juma, for example, dared to openly express dissatisfaction with Karimov's regime in a tiny protest rally in Bukhara last December, earning the 55-year old arrest and regular torture treatments for him and members of his family. For publicly displaying slogans calling for Karimov's resignation, he was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of assault and "insulting and resisting representatives of the government" in April 2008.
It doesn't need a website to get arrested for attempting to speak freely in Uzbekistan. Even a few placards will do it.
Blocking the outside world
Perhaps the most comprehensive recent study of internet filtering by the state of Uzbekistan is the 9 May 2007 report by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership of four leading academic institutions: the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Programme, University of Cambridge, and the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University.
This seminal report looked at the state's filtering of external website in several categories of information. It found substantial filtering of political content, that is information that expresses views in opposition to those of the current government, or is related to human rights, freedom of expression, minority rights, and religious movements. The survey also revealed selective filtering of social information (content that is either socially sensitive or perceived as offensive) and internet tools (websites that provide e-mail, Internet hosting, search, translation, Voice over Internet Protocol telephone service, and online censorship circumvention methods).
Interestingly, until about 2002, there was little evidence of the authorities actively blocking external websites, apart from some pornography sites. But a system for making possible the filtering of such sites already existed.
The details were laid out as early as the 2001 Uzbekistan Development Gateway's E-Readiness Assessment of Uzbekistan from the World Bank and the Center for Economic Research (a joint initiative of the Uzbek government and the United Nations Development Program). The country had 44 Internet Service Providers (ISP), but only one ISP could legally connect users to the global Internet. The 1999 Decree Number 52 of the Cabinet of Ministers granted monopoly access to the global Internet to a single company: the National Network of Information Transmission (UzPAK). All Internet connections to the outside world from within Uzbekistan had to go through UzPAK.
The authorities did not try to hide their reasons for creating this monopoly: in addition to encouraging IT development by offering preferential concessions to one operator, the authorities said quite openly that this arrangement would simplify their task of filtering and monitoring information flows. They deliberately created a bottleneck for all information coming from the outside world so they could selectively cut the flow when they wished.
Though not used very much right away, this ability to prevent external online information from entering the country gradually turned into a regular practice. After the violent attacks in Tashkent in 2004 -- blamed on Islamists but their true cause remaining obscure -- filtering of outside information increased. It rose dramatically again after the government's massacre of hundreds of civilians in Andijan in 2005 and the subsequent forced confessions and show trials that followed. The government kicked out nearly all independent foreign journalists at that point and has since been even more suspicious of the internet than ever.
Though UzPAK technically lost its monopoly on international internet connectivity with regulation number 352 in 2002, more than 80 per cent of ISPs still run their international connection through UzPAK, that handy information constriction point for the regime. And there are other forms of state control.
Every ISP must obtain a license from the Communications and Information Agency (UzACI), the principal state agency regulating communications services. Order number 216 (2004) prohibits internet providers and operators from disseminating certain types of information, which can be broadly interpreted by UzbekTelecom, the national telecommunications operator charged with overseeing the order's compliance.
Two further state agencies also analyse content disseminated on the internet and monitor compliance with media law: the Center for Mass Media Monitoring within UzACI (established in 2004 by Cabinet of Ministers regulation number 555) and the Uzbek Agency for Press and Information (UzPIA), which is empowered to suspend licenses.
Note that such restrictions can be applied to ISPs whether the information the state deems unsuitable is coming from abroad or published on an Uzbek-hosted website. Taken all together, Uzbekistan has a complex, multi-layered system of legal oversight over internet content, which when combined with the severe and often arbitrary sanctions of arrest, imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial killing, adds up to a potent force for ensuring no anti-regime views are even published online.
Of course, poverty -- the result of the state's gross economic mismanagement -- is also a potent internet censor in Uzbekistan. Pervasive corruption and the control of all key economic engines by just a few close allies of the regime have left the country in dire shape, ranked in 113th place out of 177 countries in the United Nations Development Human Development Index of 2007/2008, compared to 73rd place for neighbouring Kazakhstan. With estimated average monthly income of less than 120 US dollars (World Bank, 2006), few can afford to go online. Perhaps only 3.3 per cent of the population are internet users. Online information of any kind is simply too expensive for the overwhelming majority of Uzbekistan's citizens.
The ultimate censor
It is not ultimately the regulations and official orders that make media censorship, including online censorship, so effective in Uzbekistan. The only state agency anyone really has to think about is the National Security Service (SNB), which among its other work, monitors the Uzbek internet and compels ISPs, and even cybercafés, to self-censor the information they make available to their customers. Some of OpenNet Initiative's researchers for its 2007 report were even arrested in cybercafés while conducting their tests on filtering.
Newspapers articles used to be subject to pre-publication review in Uzbekistan, under the State Press Committee, or "GosKomPechat", but this Soviet-era structure was eliminated in 2002, with much fanfare about "the end of censorship in Uzbekistan. Of course, it was anything but that. Censorship has continued under the SNB-guided "monitoring sections", with newspapers and ISPs alike subject to losing their license -- or much worse -- if they cross one of the red lines of the regime. Self-censorship through fear is thus the norm.
The regime justifies its strict control of the media, online and traditional, with reference to national security. But it is more likely to be stories that might embarrass the regime that are hidden rather than anything to do with terrorism or security issues. According to the OpenNet Initiative report:
Blocked sites included numerous political sites and a wide range of sites with human rights contents from both the local and regional list. In general, online publications tackling political issues deemed subversive or sensitive to the government were heavily filtered. These Web sites are hosted outside of Uzbekistan (www.ferghana.ru) because the ones based in the country have been already forced to shut down (www.uznews.net).
Additional websites regularly blocked inside Uzbekistan also include opposition parties forced to work from exile, such as Erk (www.uzbekistanerk.org) and Birlik (www.birlik.net). This is not about any threat to the state. The regime simply does not want Uzbekistan's citizens to hear from the political opposition.
Similarly, information about human rights violations and high-level corruption have nothing to do with national security but everything to do with regime survival. Obviously from the regime's point of view, it is easier to silence those who would openly discuss its crimes rather than to stop committing the offences.
The sycophantic domestic coverage of the presidential election in 2007 was again a clear case of there being no difference between the online and offline media: not a word of opposition was seen during the entire campaign. No one dared to even mention that Karimov's second term mandate had ended 11 months before the vote or that his inevitable third term was unconstitutional. To do so would be suicide for the editor, commentator or blogger.
The 2007 OpenNet Initiative report wrote, "Uzbekistan's control of the Internet embodies the most pervasive regime of filtering and censorship in the CIS." Worldwide, perhaps only North Korea, Burma and China control external flows of online information more. The press freedom group Reporters without Borders has placed all these countries in its annual list of "enemies of the internet", and it is not hard to see why.