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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 December 2007, 16:54 GMT
Uzbekistan's silenced society
By Natalia Antelava
Central Asia correspondent, BBC News

Surfing the net in Uzbekistan is a frustrating experience, at least for those who are trying to check the news.

A protester holding a portrait of Alisher Saipov, October 2007
The murder of Alisher Saipov has been blamed on Uzbek agents
Most of the independent and pro-opposition websites are blocked, as are the BBC and Radio Liberty.

In hundreds of internet cafes across the country, the government is keeping a close eye on the behaviour of internet users.

"If you want to copy a file in an internet cafe to your USB stick, you have to ask the manager, who first checks the content and only then copies your file," explained an Uzbek journalist who asked not to be identified.

"Even if you use a search engine and type in Uzbekistan or Islam Karimov, all articles that may have negative comments are blocked - even blogs are inaccessible," she said.

'Pure propoganda'

The state television and newspaper carry the news that the government wants people to hear.

Every news bulletin is full of praise for President Islam Karimov, for the economic achievements of his government and for the prosperous future that he is building for Uzbekistan.

Islam Karimov
Mr Karimov does not tolerate criticism of his government

"We are living a fat lie," said a resident of the capital, Tashkent, who asked to be called Rushana.

"Most people just don't watch the news, because we know that it's pure propaganda and has nothing to do with reality"

Uzbekistan, like its neighbours, has never been overly friendly to journalists, and the government has always done its best to control the flow of information.

Independent reporters have always complained of government harassment, restrictions and inability to get information.

"But at least there were independent reporters in Uzbekistan, at least we were managing to get the story out," says one of the few journalists who still works in Uzbekistan.

"Then there was Andijan."

For journalists and for Uzbekistan, he says, things went from bad to worse when government tanks rolled into the main square of the eastern city of Andijan on 14 May 2005 to disperse a peaceful anti-government protest.

His newspaper carried a virus of a revolution, and it posed a serious threat to the information vacuum that the government had created
Daniil Kislov

Thousands of people, including women and children, ran as troops chased them down the streets, shooting at demonstrators.

The UN said it was a massacre and as many as 1,000 could have been killed.

But President Karimov said the demonstration was an attempt at an Islamic uprising.

He refused to allow an independent inquiry, jailed thousands of people connected to the events and, overnight, turned his back on the West.

Very successfully and very quickly, President Karimov created an information vacuum inside Uzbekistan, and prevented the protest from spreading.

Clampdown on dissent

But after the events, a Kyrgyz city of Osh that sits right on the border with Uzbekistan became a hole in the Uzbek state propaganda balloon.

Osh, and the area around it, is home to thousands of ethnic Uzbeks. Compared with its big neighbour, Kyrgyzstan enjoys a relative degree of freedom of expression.

It was in Osh that ethnic Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov began publishing Siyosat, or Politics - the first opposition Uzbek language printed newspaper.

Map of Uzbekistan

On its pages he wrote about torture in Uzbek prisons, about the total clampdown on dissent and the economic collapse of what was once Central Asia's richest nation.

The paper was smuggled by merchants and traders into Uzbekistan, where it was becoming increasingly popular ahead of December's presidential election.

"Alisher managed to reach out to those who have no alternative sources of information - who have no internet, no radio," said Daniil Kislov, editor of the ferghana.ru news website.

"The newspaper was distributed in Andijan and in the villages around, and very quickly the government understood that this was much more dangerous than any internet site or any international broadcaster.

"His newspaper carried a virus of a revolution, and it posed a serious threat to the information vacuum that the government had created," Mr Kislov said.

On 24 October at 7pm, as Alisher left his office in Osh, an unidentified gunmen fired two bullets into the back of his head.

Kyrgyz police are still looking for the perpetrators, but according to Paul Quinn Judge, Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, the murder sent a pretty clear signal.

"You don't criticise the president, you don't criticise his constitutional decisions, and you certainly don't vote against him," said Mr Judge.

"Alisher's murder reinforced that message in a very brutal way, but I suspect very strongly the message of Alisher's murder goes to the overseas opposition rather than the internal Uzbek opposition."

Daniil Kislov said: "It was an execution. A cold-blooded execution designed to tell all of us to shut up."

But one Uzbek journalist says that Alisher's murder has had just the opposite effect on her.

"I will work in Uzbekistan despite everything. I hope others too take it as a lesson, I hope it becomes a step to freedom, a step in our struggle for such freedom that Alisher was struggling for," she said.

But with President Karimov's clampdown on dissent spilling beyond Uzbekistan's borders, it is becoming increasingly difficult, and increasingly dangerous for people to find courage to speak out.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Uzbekistan
29 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Third Uzbekistan 'torture death'
03 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbek reporter's contacts seized
27 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbek exiles mark Andijan deaths
13 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific



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