Criticized Over Blogger Arrests, Uzbekistan Denies It’s a Free Speech Issue

In 2017, when Uzbekistan’s newly installed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev promised systemic reforms, his dialogue with citizens helped usher into prominence a new segment of the country’s internet-savvy youth: bloggers.

Part political and social critics, part influencers, they made a name airing oft-repressed grievances, and serving as a bridge between the people and the government.

Among them, Ferghana-based Olimjon Haydarov.

Enticed by Mirziyoyev’s democratic pledge, Haydarov returned from migrant work in South Korea six years ago. He wasted no time launching social media channels covering topics from politics to agriculture.

But earlier this month the 34-year-old was convicted of extortion and defamation and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Haydarov’s case is seen as a blow to the Uzbek media community, which has watched at least five members convicted this year.

“We couldn’t do anything,” says Sharifa Murod, an independent reporter, reacting to Haydarov’s verdict. “Public opinion did not matter.”

Bloggers worry freedom is eroding

While debates rage about the allegations in each case, many Uzbek journalists and bloggers worry that the modest freedom Mirziyoyev seemed to offer is rapidly vanishing.

The Tashkent-based Ezgulik Human Rights Society reports more than 20 criminal cases concerning bloggers this year alone.

Outspoken voices have no protection in Uzbekistan, wrote Samarkand-based reporter Shuhrat Shokirjonov on Facebook. Urging colleagues to not feel protected by the strength of their online popularity, he added, “The best ones are locked up. The rest keep mouths shut.”

Police say blogger was taking bribe

In Haydarov’s case, Ferghana police say they arrested the blogger while he was taking a bribe of $2,500 in exchange for a critical article he had threatened to post about a local bazaar.

Authorities claimed that by the time of his arrest on June 29, 2023, Haydarov had extorted $7,500 for withholding coverage. Officials pointed to video and audio recordings of his conversations about the suspected scheme, which the defense portrayed as orchestrated and fabricated.

Throughout Haydarov’s trial, which played out over 10 hearings, the blogger protested his innocence.

Other bloggers believe Haydrarov’s sharp social commentary made him a target.

“This was a baseless trial, just to spread fear, so we all go silent,” Farukh Samarkandi told VOA.

Another blogger, Khudoyberdi Zominiy, closely followed Haydarov’s deliberations. “The whole thing seemed like retaliation for the intricate issues he had been raising,” Zominiy told VOA.

Haydarov often shed light on Uzbekistan’s persistent energy shortages, the poor state of its healthcare system, and rights abuses. But like other bloggers, he entered into private arrangements with businesses to promote them.

Such paid publicity in Uzbekistan often leads to conflicts of interest and in some cases to extortion and bribery accusations, despite bloggers’ contention that the earnings come from honest work.

Accessible trial

In contrast to earlier prosecutions of media figures, Haydarov’s trial was more accessible.

A spokesperson for Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court told VOA Haydarov’s trial was open to the public.

But when blogger Abduqodir Muminov was convicted of extortion and defamation over the summer, it was in a mostly closed process. He is now serving a seven-year prison term.

In the fall, journalist-blogger Khurshid Daliyev and former government press service heads Mavjuda Mirzayeva and Siyovush Hoshimov were found guilty of similar charges.

Daliyev and Hoshimov each were sentenced to seven years, while Mirzayeva went home with a suspended sentence due to illness.

Veteran journalist Sharof Ubaydullayev, who also served in the government, defends bloggers as “the real voices of the people and reliable grassroots sources.”

“There is no law requiring bloggers to work for free,” Ubaydullayev told VOA.

In his view, President Mirziyoyev relies on bloggers to support his good governance agenda. However, Ubaydullayev worries that the nature of their activism makes them vulnerable.

“Bloggers know the truth of our society and enlighten the masses. We call them bloggers now, but this segment has always made up the core of our media,” Ubaydullayev said.

Like many Uzbek bloggers, Zominiy does not apologize for taking on other jobs, such as advocating for a youth organization, or advertising products in his posts.

“We have families to feed and bills to pay,” he told VOA. “And we continue to blog despite warnings from our managers at work.”

Still, Zominiy remains optimistic, saying “Today’s conditions are better. Now we’re able to push the authorities to be accountable and press for the rule of law.”

Government supports rule of law

Uzbekistan’s media regulator, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) told VOA in a written response that the government is “steadfast” in its support for the rule of law.

Stressing a commitment to media freedom, the regulator denied that actions against bloggers relate to the freedom of expression.

“These cases are totally about verified criminal acts,” such as blackmail and extortion, according to the agency.

“Blogger or journalist, no one is above the law,” said the statement. “We reiterate that no journalist or blogger should ever be locked up for free speech and expression.”

The agency pointed to 8,844 cases of fraud across Uzbekistan this year, charging judges, law enforcement officers, mayors, educators, and others. Referring to the prosecutions this year of bloggers, it said those cases were based on credible evidence.

When asked whether the legal action casts doubt on Uzbekistan’s claims of reform, AIMC brushed off concerns raised by the human rights groups, pointing to a rise in the number of media outlets, journalists, and bloggers in the country.

“More people in the sector means more problems,” it said but added that the current media environment is vibrant and advancing.

Ubaydullayev, a retired reporter and editor, hopes that Uzbekistan’s media community will begin to adopt international standards and best practices.

“They need support,” he said. “Instead of imprisoning them, train these people. Turn them into professionals.”

This story originated in VOA’s Uzbek service.

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