Mon, Nov 05, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Uzbek bloggers test, and hit, limits of their newfound freedom

By Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov  /  Reuters, TASHKENT

When Uzbek authorities detained several online advocates in September, blogger Davronbek Tojialiyev packed some clothes in a bag and waited for the knock on his door.

The police never came and Tojialiyev, one of a handful of bloggers breaking taboos by criticizing state policies and officials, writes on.

The 34-year-old’s experience suggests that the new government in Tashkent is willing to make concessions as it vows to ease restrictions that made Uzbeks wary of speaking freely for the past 25 years.

However, the detention of the bloggers shows that the change has limits, even as Uzbekistan tries to project a more liberal image to foreign investors, whose help it needs to revive the economy after years of stagnation.

The government is still sensitive to challenges to its authority, including in the sphere of religion.

The country was rocked by bombings in the late 1990s and early 2000s that were blamed on Muslim militants, and by an armed uprising in 2005 in which hundreds of people were killed.

Tojialiyev said that mixed messages from the state on freedom of expression are unlikely to stop people like him from pushing the boundaries.

“I was not afraid [of arrest], but I was ready for it,” he said with a smile.

Public criticism of the government was unthinkable under former Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who ran the Muslim-majority former Soviet republic from 1989 until his death in 2016.

Critics, such as journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov, spent years in prison on charges related to public security and inciting rebellion. Ruzimuradov was released in March last year after 19 years behind bars.

“During Karimov’s time, bloggers could write only about small issues, mostly social,” said Tojialiyev, whose day job is running ziyouz.uz, a catalog of Uzbek literature. “It was not possible to talk about serious and political subjects.”

Karimov’s successor, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has proclaimed a new era of openness and freedom of the press, and moved to curb the powers of the security forces.

“I regard as real journalists the ones who expose ... bureaucracy, indifference, extortion, corruption,” he said in remarks published by his office last year.

“There needs to be plurality of opinions in the national media space,” he said.

The Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which answers all queries from the international media, including to the police, did not reply to a request for comment.

Mirziyoyev’s approach has improved Uzbekistan’s image abroad and helped it start rebuilding ties with institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which had in effect withdrawn from the country under Karimov.

US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross praised “the successful political and democratic reforms that are under way in Uzbekistan” on a visit to Tashkent last week.

“The types of reforms the president has embraced here are essential to establishing the certitude that companies need to open operations in the local economy,” he told the American-Uzbek Chamber of Commerce Business Forum.

Bordering Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the country of 33 million produces gold, natural gas and oil. One of its selling points to foreign investors is as a stepping stone between Russia and China.

However, some of the government’s steps have been clumsy.

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