In intensifying censorship and surveillance, and making a pretence of promoting freedom, the Uzbek regime has been attempting to strictly monitor Internet users in order to offset the fallout from Arab Spring, while taking the offensive by exporting its model on a worldwide scale.
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Cynical official rhetoric
On the occasion of “Media Workers’ Day” on 27 June 2011, President Karimov asserted that the government “...fully supports the desire of our fellow citizens to increasingly use the Internet. [...]” He further stated: “We absolutely do not accept the establishment of any walls, [or] limitations in the information world leading to isolation,” and denounced the “destructive forces” which “tend to mislead young people.”
The official rhetoric is very remote from the contemptible reality: Uzbekistan is one of the region’s most Internet-repressive countries (see the Uzbekistan chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
Arab Spring: The censors’ latest scapegoat
Uzbek censorship and online monitoring were bolstered in 2011 in reaction to Arab Spring. The first step consisted of intensifying Web filtering:
- The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) website, and that of Russian investigative magazine Russky Reporter, one of the last sources of independent information still accessible in the country, are now blocked.
- On 9 August 2011, on the eve of the Internet Festival of the national domain UZ, marking the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence, more than 50 major websites, including such foreign news portals as those of The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg and Lenta.ru, as well as the Google research engine, Reporters Without Borders’ website, etc., were blocked for several days.
- Uzbek discussion forums on events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain such as arbuz.com have been blocked and contributors arrested.
- Articles and news about demonstrations and protest movements have been blocked,particularly the controversy surrounding the United Nations’ resolutions on Syria. The BBC website was unblocked in late 2011, but since January 2012, specific pages dealing with the Arab Spring have been inaccessible.
The authorities are increasingly cracking down on technical intermediaries. ISPs and mobile phone operators are now required to report mass mailings of “suspicious content”, and to disconnect their networks at the authorities’ simple request. The objective is clear: to prevent any mass distributions and rallies.
In August 2011, the already well-developed Internet surveillance apparatus was reinforced with the creation of a “Committee of Experts on Information and Mass Communication.” Exclusively made up of government employees, this new structure was apparently created to analyze and interpret data collected by the Center for Monitoring Mass Communications in the aim of monitoring the media and formulating new laws.
Phishing attempts have been detected. A mirror website of the Uzbek Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service, ozod.orca.uz, allegedly has been set up to collect the personal data of netizens consulting the site.
Two human rights activists, Saida Kurbanova and Gulbahor Turaeva, were harassed and intimidated after the former denounced online issues concerning government credit cards, and the latter criticized the unhappy fate of the country’s elderly and the defects of the waste collection system.
Between uncertain reform and exporting a control model
Media legislation reform is underway. However, the official pro-media freedom discourse may be an omen of more obstacles to the free flow of information. By integrating new technologies, according to the OSCE, “it must result in more, and not less media freedom".
Uzbekistan has been exporting its repressive practices. The country has globally positioned itself as the champion of tighter Web controls. Not content to warn his Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies against online “terrorism” and “revolutionary contagion,” the Tachkent government also signed, notably with China and Russia, an International Code of Conduct for Information Security aimed at guaranteeing “cybersecurity,” which it would like to see adopted by the United Nations.