“Re-elected” in 2007 with 88 per cent of the vote, he has steadily boosted his power, ruthlessly silencing the opposition press through disappearances, forcible internment in psychiatric hospitals and arbitrary imprisonment. Journalists can pay dearly for their reporting, with charges of terrorism and trial on trumped-up charges.
At least 10 journalists are currently in prison. Karimov said in 1999 he was “prepared to blow off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to preserve peace and tranquillity”.
Karimov is everywhere in the state media, which credits him with all the country’s successes, and tolerates no reporting of the country’s social and economic life. Economic under-development and the plight of women, for example, are incompatible with the modern image the regime wants to project.
“Insulting the Uzbek people” was one of the charges in prosecutions in 2010 of photographer Umida Akhmedova and radio show host Khayrullo Khamidov for covering social problems. More simply and effectively, Elena Bondar and Viktor Krymzalov were sentenced early this year to heavy fines for articles they did not write.
Fewer and fewer independent local journalists are working and it has been impossible for the foreign media to operate in Uzbekistan since the bloody repression of the 2005 uprising in Andijan. Since March 2011 Karimov has tried to ward off any local imitation of the Middle East revolts.
Human Rights Watch has been expelled from the country, visiting journalists have been refused entry at the airport, state media journalists banned from talking to foreign diplomats without government permission and contacts with the outside world sharply reduced. Online censorship has been stepped up and mobile phone operators are required to report “suspicious content” and cut off Internet access whenever the government decides.