Despite the European Union’s decision in late 2009 to lift the sanctions against Uzbekistan, the regime has not loosened its grasp on the Net – quite to the contrary. This police state is still routinely preventing the dissemination of information online and all efforts to initiate a civil society – virtual or any other kind.
Better access to the Internet?
Internet access costs are gradually decreasing, thereby providing more opportunities for the population to surf the Web. Consequently the number of Internet users is rising by 2 to 3% every three months. There is still a long way to go before the Internet will be accessible to everyone, but at least access costs are no longer an insurmountable barrier.
Netizens primarily visit entertainment sites. The most popular news website is Gazeta.uz. Uzbek netizens seem to prefer Russian-language social networks to blogs. Odnoklassniki.ru (“Classmates”) and My World (my.mail.ru) have higher traffic rates than Facebook and Twitter.
Big brother is about to fine-tune its censorship
The Centre for Monitoring Mass Communications (CMMC) closely monitors the content of Internet websites and audiovisual media. Reporting to the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information (UzASCI), it is responsible for blocking the the sites or articles which it deems undesirable.
Among the blocked sites are the Ferghana.ru news agency website and that of Nezavissimaya Gazeta (www.ng.ru). The regional news site Centrasia.ru is partially blocked, but most of the pages can still be read. When attempting to access prohibited articles, Internet users are redirected to the home page. The Central Asian News Service site, www.ca-news.org, is also partially blocked. The Uzbek-language BBC is constantly blocked, as is the Russian version intermittently. Social networks such as LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Flickr and the most popular blog platform in Uzbekistan, kloop.kg, are made inaccessible from time to time.
Sensitive subjects include criticisms of the government, information on the actual state of the economy, human rights and the social situation. It is not advisable to discuss the private business of the Karimov family or their daughters’ personal lives, the forced labour of children in cotton fields, or emergency situations. It is much too risky to mention petrol supply problems, inflation, the population’s impoverishment, and social unrest. Any reference to the Andijan massacre is simply removed. The population has long since stopped bringing up the subject in public – and even sometimes in private. Self-censorship is widespread.
Censorship is enforced inconsistently and varies in accordance with what is happening in the country. During President Karimov’s visit to Russia from 19 to 20 April 2010, some articles on the Ria Novosti website were blocked in Uzbekistan. Internet service providers sometimes block articles on Uzbekistan published on news agency websites such as lenta.ru or newsru.com.
Officially, however, the government denies that it censures the Net. In March 2010, when asked by the NGO Forum 18 why such sites as Ferghana.ru or Rferl.org were being blocked, Elbek Dalimov, Head of the Press Service of Uzbekistan’s State Agency of Communications and Information, claimed that his agency did not block websites. He merely acknowledged that access to some “terrorist” or “pornographic” websites was banned in licensing agreements with Internet service providers.
Facebook blocked several hours
One piece of news which caused quite a stir was that access to Facebook was blocked in the country for several hours on 21 October 2010, but not uniformly. According to Neweurasia.net, a source with the main Internet service provider, TshTT, confirmed that an order had been given to block Facebook for just a few days . Some access providers did as instructed, others did not. Users protests demanding that Facebook contact local Internet access providers to find out what was going on allegedly resulted in the block being lifted.
Certain users welcome the addition on Facebook pages of ads for some of the blocked sites – ferghana.ru, Uznews.net and neweurasia.net – which allow them to access said websites. Nonetheless, the social network is said to be accessible via mobile phones. Mobile phone operators, such as MTS-Uzbekistan, are not state-owned.
Attempts to block social networks have been viewed by Uzbek netizens as a way for the government to prevent the dissemination of information and as a test for the future implementation of even more drastic restrictions on social networks.
Online journalist first sentenced, then pardoned
Vladimir Berezovsky, Russian editor of the Tashkent-based news website vesti.uz, was convicted on defamation charges on October 13, 2010 and released on the occasion of the 19th anniversary of the country’s independence. Charges were brought against Berezovsky the day after Vesti published an article criticising the authorities’ decision to rename a street in the capital which originally bore the name of a Russian-born Uzbek citizen. Tougher laws for online publications
Internet access is governed by Article 29 of Uzbekistan’s Constitution, which prohibits anyone from seeking, obtaining and disseminating any information directed against the existing constitutional system or divulging any state secret or confidential corporate information.
The 2002 Law on Principles and Guarantees of Freedom of Information authorises the government to restrict this freedom of information when necessary to protect any individual from “the psychological impact of negative information.” Order no. 216 of 2004 prohibits Internet service providers and operators from disseminating certain types of information. A broad interpretation of the targeted content is made by the national operator Uzbek Telecom. The 2007 Media Law renders editors and journalists liable for the “objectivity” of their publications and applies to online media. The January 2010 amendments to this law now obligate Internet websites, as well as all other media, to register and to provide information on their employees and copies of their articles to the government.
The Uzbek National Security Service (NSS) is responsible for Internet surveillance and for ensuring that these rules are being enforced by ISPs and cybercafés.
Netizens under surveillance
The one thousand or so cybercafés operating in the country are not evenly monitored. There is a widespread use of spyware. Tests conducted by Reporters Without Borders have shown that certain café managers reacted when anti-spyware software was installed on one of their computers, while in other cybercafés, such tampering went unnoticed. Some censorship circumvention tools may have been used in certain cafés, but not in others. Several OpenNet Initiative researchers were questioned in 2007 while they were testing website filtering systems.
Emails are also under surveillance, as are chat rooms, particular those of ICQ and Mail.ru Agent. Several people were supposedly arrested in January 2010 for their alleged membership in extremist religious organisations after they were spotted based on the content of their chats on Mail.ru Agent.
A new law in effect since 18 May 2010 is aimed at “improving young people’s conduct” to prevent them from “engaging in criminal activities.” Accordingly, the government decreed that young people under the age of 18 could not go into bars, restaurants, cinemas, nightclubs or even cybercafés unless accompanied by a legal guardian. One way of controlling the information available to young people is to deprive them of Web access. This law has obviously been ignored by those most concerned. Many minors can be seen alone in these places at night.
In May 2010, MPs and government representatives considered restricting young people’s use of their mobile phones in schools and universities, among other options.
The government positions itself on UzNet
The main websites used by the government to relay its online propaganda are Press-uz.info, GT.uz and Gorizont.uz. In addition, some sites registered in Kazakhstan or in Kyrgyzstan are used to compromise human rights activists, members of the opposition, or journalists. They also provide a means to justify certain decisions made by the government and the president.
What is the international community doing?
In September 2010, Dunja Mijatovic, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) publicly shared her concern about the judicial pressures which are still being brought to bear on independent journalists in Uzbekistan.
In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Tachkent in early December 2010, asked President Karimov to “demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected.”
These few examples of encouraging interventions remain the exception. In October 2009, the European Union lifted its remaining sanctions against Uzbekistan in order to encourage “Uzbek authorities to take further substantive steps to improve the rule of law and the human rights situation.” Democracy and human rights have thus been sacrificed on the altar of energy and military co-operation.
The government knows he is in a position of strength while he is trying to emerge from its isolation and attract foreign investors. Uzbekistan is an important transit hub for getting supplies to Western troops deployed in Afghanistan. The country also has substantial energy resources.
As long as Uzbek authorities continue to demonstrate a growing interest in controlling the Net, and there is no civil society truly capable of resisting them – even online – or any significant international pressures, prospects look dark for freedom of expression in Uzbekistan’s cyberspace.