In recent years, media freedom in Uzbekistan has improved under the rule of Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The reformist prime minister turned president has been in power since 2016 following the death of long-time ruler Islam Karimov. Since then, Mirziyoyev has moved to open up one of the world’s harshest dictatorships: quickly freeing imprisoned journalists, unblocking banned news websites and welcoming back foreign media.

But the improvements are also relative. The Central Asian country remains far from a paradise for media freedom, with journalists still facing significant hurdles to doing their jobs safely and freely. New insult and defamation laws and recent cases of intimidation and arrests have provided a stark illustration of the risks that remain.

Speaking with a group of journalists on February 4, Mirziyoyev assured them “not to be afraid” to report on problems in the country because he would “stand behind them”.

This assurance came a day after the government granted accreditation to a freelance Polish journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka, a contributor to Al Jazeera and The Guardian. The foreign ministry had cancelled her accreditation in February. The move came after an incident in which Pikulicka said she been sexually harassed by an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who later demanded she write positively about the coronavirus measures in Uzbekistan.

On March 28, Pikulicka was also targeted by the police after she covered a demonstration in the capital in Tashkent by people protesting against LGBT rights. During the demonstration, blogger and LGTB activist Miraziz Bazarov was viciously attacked and hospitalized.

Pikulicka tried to visit Bazarov and interview him at the hospital, but the police refused her entry and ordered her not to report on the attack. In the following days, she tweeted updates about the attack and the activist’s hospitalization, as well as the interrogations and threats by the police against his visitors.

In response, the Interior Ministry issued a statement quoting several of Pikulicka’s tweets and accused her with violating national media laws by publishing false information. If charged and convicted under the laws cited by the ministry, Pikulicka could face a fine of up to 24.5 million Uzbek soums (€1,900) and the loss of her accreditation.

“Many of the things I wrote about on Twitter were directly related to the actions of the Ministry of Interior and security forces”, Pikulicka told IPI in a recent interview. “I think that from their point of view, I humiliated them. I put them in an uncomfortable position and they basically felt that they had to react.”

She added: “They’re not really used to people talking openly about their actions. If they question people, and even trespass their own responsibilities, they usually don’t get any backlash. I started tweeting about all the things that were happening immediately.”

Following the ministry’s statement, Pikulicka reported that she had received repeated threats from trolls on social media and was being watched by unknown men who were parked in front of her house for several hours. Since then, Pikulicka has tried several times to reach out to the Interior Ministry but has not yet received any response.

“They have not apologized, and they have not pressed charges, which I think is a good development in the sense that it shows that they are not ready to take any further steps”, she said. “I’m not being followed anymore. At least, I haven’t seen it in the last couple of days. And it seems that the situation has calmed down and everything is going back to normal.”

Uzbekistan-based Polish journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka. (Photo credit: Agnieszka Pikulicka)

Journalists still under pressure

Pikulicka case was a reminder that Uzbekistan’s hostile attitude toward journalists has not disappeared under Mirziyoyev. Many of the country’s worst repressive measures against the press have been reversed in recent years. Detained journalists have been released, websites of many independent media have been unblocked and journalists from news media such as, BBC or Voice of America have been allowed to work in the country. However, while Mirziyoyev is taking selfies with journalists and bloggers, many media outlets still face barriers to reporting or struggle to attain official accreditation, and access to information and authorities remains a particular challenge.

Though the liberalization of the media landscape and an increase in media pluralism has meant reporting on some sensitive topics such as forced labour or graft is now permitted, any form of investigative or critical journalism directed at the authorities is still met with the authoritarian response typical of the previous regime.

A recent illustration came on March 30, when the president of Uzbekistan signed a law criminalizing public incitement to disorder and violence, as well as the insult or defamation of the president on telecommunication networks or the internet, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, arrests on journalists continue. Most recently, on January 30, citizen journalist Otabek Sattoriy was arrested outside his house for alleged extortion of cash and a mobile phone from unnamed individuals. It followed videos released by Sattoriy in which he criticized the poor state of the local infrastructure and blamed political corruption for being responsible.

Likewise, in both 2018 and 2020, journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev was prosecuted for allegedly producing “anti-government propaganda”.

In November of last year, the governmental Agency for Information and Mass Communication sent several warning letters to media outlets accusing them of “unprofessional activities” after critically reporting on the official COVID-19 statistics. In a subsequent statement, the agency defended its actions by saying that the media it had approached had spread “false information”. In a similar incident, last year security forces demanded that critical articles from and on the appointment of a new head of governments of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan were removed.

Press freedom changing

President Mirziyoyev took office five years ago after the death of his predecessor Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country for 27 years and created one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

“In times of Karimov, it wasn’t possible to write under your real name at all”, Nikita Makarenko, a journalist from Tashkent, told IPI. “You would have been facing real problems or you were a part of the propaganda.”

After Mirziyoyev came to power, the situation for press freedom improved. It became possible to publish under one’s own name without having to fear legal consequences and the president often made positive comments about the press.

“He always repeats that ‘the press is my friend’ and ‘they helped me a lot’, but reality is different”, he said. “Officials don’t take his words seriously and we still have a lot of trouble during our work. It is not easier at all.”

Nowadays, it is possible to publish freely, but this does not protect you from other threats, Makarenko said. While there are laws that provide protection to journalists, they often lack enforcement.

“We don’t feel that someone really wants to protect us. We more feel like everyone is against us and it’s really hard”, Makarenko said. According to him, the majority of threats no longer come from the state but often from extremists and criminals. “I experience it daily: dozens of hate speech comments, even death threats and private messages”, he explained. “There are many troll factories and bloggers that work for organizations that are unknown to us.”

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. 21 January 2019. EPA-EFE/ADAM BERRY

“There are still many taboo topics”

The new government has tried to put itself in a better light with respect to press freedom. However, although the situation for freedom of expression has improved considerably, it is still far from ideal.  “We still have too many taboo topics like political prisoners, sex education, sexual minorities, or public criticism of the ruling elite”, Darina Solod, founder and editor-in-chief of the independent Uzbek news outlet, an, told IPI.

She and other members of have repeatedly experienced pressure from the government. “The Siloviki (representatives of the secret services) accused us of planning to arrange a revolution in Uzbekistan, like in Belarus, and also actively defending LGBT people, which is in their view contrary to the mentality of Uzbekistan”, Solod said.

According to her, state security service officials threatened a member of the editorial team in 2019 with prosecution for working for the publication. Security officials also tried to silence another journalist last year by going to his relatives’ homes and putting pressure on them, attempting to force him to leave the publication.

This situation has become even more severe in the course of the pandemic. “While Uzbekistan was closed during the pandemic, some forces decided to seize the moment and intimidate particularly critical publications and journalists, knowing that if something happened, we would have nowhere to go and nowhere to wait for help. In this case, quarantine plays into their hands”, she said.

“We continued to work, since from a legal point of view, we did not violate a single law, and in the case of open persecution, we know that we will involve the world community in this story”, Solod explained. “Since open pressure on the media is now extremely disadvantageous to the current government and will negatively affect its image, we still have some time to work calmly.”