Two journalists working for public television Yoshlar, Saodat Omonova and Malohat Eshankulova, were dismissed on 9 December, three days after they demonstrated against censorship and corruption at the TV station, in a square in central Tashkent.
Reporters Without Borders expressed concern for their safety, since following their sacking they are still being harassed and intimidated both by their former employer and the security services.
These two journalists alerted their fellow citizens and colleagues to an endemic ill within the country: the censorship of public media. In a country as repressive as Uzbekistan, it was an act of courage, the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
We hope that nothing worse happens in the coming weeks. And we will be vigilant. Uzbek journalists are too often victims of official and judicial persecution, frequently in violation of the law, underlining the lengths to which the authorities will go to silence all those who oppose the system.
Human rights activists, who took part in the demonstration in Mutsakillik square in the capital, were arrested but the journalists were left alone. But three days later, on 9 December, the TV station’s management fired them on the grounds that they had organised an unauthorised demonstration and damaged the image of the authorities, both criminal offences.
Omonova and Eshankulova received a phone call on 14 December summoning them to the TV’s premises the following day to take part in a meeting of the station’s trade union committee and to discuss their situation. Neither of the journalists was able to attend because they were in Samarkand and both of them were unwell. The station’s management went so far as to check they were actually being treated at the hospital in Samarkand. Even more worrying, members of state security went to the hospital to check the two journalists’ records going back several years.
Uzbekistan is one of the world’s most repressive countries in terms of press freedom, ranked 163rd out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 world press freedom index. At least 11 journalists are currently in prison.