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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 November 2007, 12:06 GMT
The silencing of Uzbekistan's voice
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News

Behind every international story that you read, every radio report that you hear or television piece that you watch, there is likely to be a person that we - the reporters - rarely mention.

Journalist Alisher Saipov
Uncovering the truth of story was paramount to Alisher

Often it is the first person we meet when we fly into a foreign country.

Someone who explains to us the nuts and bolts of the story we have come to cover, who fills us in on what is happening on the ground and puts us in touch with vital contacts.

This person is a local journalist.

And after we - the global media - exhaust our short attention span and leave, our local colleagues stay behind. They have the story that we tell in passing.

Their main sources are people in the streets and they are, more often than not, the first ones to get the word out.

In many ways, they are the real journalists. And the best I have ever known was Alisher Saipov.

Reporting reality

Twenty-six years old, slim, boyish and restless, Alisher had dedicated his entire life to telling the story of a place that many people know little about: Uzbekistan.

Methodical, passionate and thorough, he dug deeper than anyone else into the reality of President Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan

It is Central Asia's most populous country and home to what some have described as one of the world's most oppressive regimes.

An ethnic Uzbek himself, Alisher grew up just across the border from Uzbekistan, in the Kyrgyz town of Osh.

He used to say that gave him a degree of freedom, and the responsibility to speak up for those who did not have a voice.

"Freedom is a precious commodity, and it should not be wasted," he once told me.

He did not waste a second of it. For Alisher, journalism was not just a job, it was a tool, an instrument to push for what he saw as desperately needed change.

A map of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan

Methodical, passionate and thorough, he dug deeper than anyone else into the reality of President Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan.

He wrote endlessly about torture in Uzbek prisons, about the total clampdown on dissent, about the economic collapse of what was once the region's richest nation, and about the rise of Islamic radicalism, driven - he always said - by the government's persecution of Muslims in Uzbekistan.

With his sound recorder, a camera strapped around his shoulder, and a cheeky smile stretched across his face, he was constantly on the move - investigating, writing, planning and dreaming.

His contacts ranged from Islamic radicals to politicians, from refugees to secret service officers. Whether it was a man on the run, or the man who was after him, Alisher always seemed to have the phone number.

He went where others would not go, and asked questions no one dared to raise. He was - we used to joke - the king of scoops, the master of making headlines.

Kidnap reports

I first met Alisher in the aftermath of a bloody crackdown in the Uzbek city of Andijan in 2005, where government troops opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds of civilians.

Hundreds more fled across the border, into southern Kyrgyzstan.

Alisher's investigations revealed that the Uzbek security services were kidnapping some of these refugees and taking them back to Uzbek jails.

He was the first person to warn that Mr Karimov's hand had stretched far beyond his country's borders.

Just over two weeks ago, thrilled and overflowing with pride, he showed me his new project: an Uzbek-language newspaper.

He was beginning to feature heavily on Uzbek state-controlled television, portrayed as a terrorist, a dangerous man with a hidden agenda

Published in Kyrgyzstan and smuggled across the border by traders and merchants, it was the only Uzbek-language publication that challenged the authorities.

The paper was becoming increasingly popular ahead of the December presidential election, in which Mr Karimov is seeking re-election.

And, with its popularity, Alisher's name too was gaining prominence.

He was beginning to feature heavily on Uzbek state-controlled television, portrayed as a terrorist, a dangerous man with a hidden agenda of overthrowing the Uzbek state.

The last time I saw him he told me that there were even rumours that the Uzbek government had put a price on his head.

Chilling message

We talked for hours that evening - about his paper, about the upcoming election and about reports of a fresh wave of repression.

But more than anything else, we talked about his new family - his young wife and newborn baby daughter.

An Uzbek soldier in Andijan on 13 May 2005
Witnesses in Andijan said hundreds were killed by Uzbek troops
"Being a dad," he said to me, "is like discovering a whole new world."

He only had three months to enjoy being a father.

On October 24, at 1900 local time, as he walked out from his office in the centre of Osh, a gunmen fired three bullets into his head and chest.

His murder was an execution. And it sent a chilling message not just to his friends, but to all of his colleagues around the world who live and work in dangerous places.

A message to all of those who give their communities a voice, who are trying to promote freedom in countries which does not exist. To all of those whose names you may not know, but without whom we could never tell you the full story.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 November, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Uzbekistan
29 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Uzbek reporter's contacts seized
27 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Outspoken Uzbek reporter killed
25 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Islam Karimov
17 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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