Tuesday, 8 January 2002

Back in the USSR

Online Journalism Review published this article on 8 January 2002. It looked at how the Uzbek regime was working to control print, broadcast and online media.

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Uzbekistan, America's new ally in the global war on terror, has suddenly attracted a flood of international correspondents covering the war in Afghanistan next door and they have been astonished by the media environment they have found.

The former Soviet republic is an authoritarian state with an approach to broadcast, print and online media reminiscent of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, if it had survived long enough to experience the Web.

Independent journalism is non-existent here. Censorship is pervasive, and the regime has taken steps to control the Internet as firmly as it controls the centralized printing presses and the TV stations. The country’s poverty insures that alternative media outlets cannot develop; forget Internet access: less than one percent of the population can even afford a daily newspaper.

A step back in time

Many post-Communist states took to the Internet with great enthusiasm in the 1990s. Countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia all have competitive media markets, a free press and a rich and vibrant collection of online publications now forming an integral part of the public debate in those countries. Even Russia has a relatively healthy and influential new media sector.

For some of the less developed parts of the old Soviet empire, however, the media situation is bleak, and little seems to have changed over the past decade. In fact, many would say, countries such as Uzbekistan are going backwards if anything.

According to Uzbek media experts in the recently published Media Sustainability Index (MSI), '...the condition of Uzbekistan's media has not only stagnated (since the country's independence in 1991), but is actually deteriorating.' Continuing, they add, 'the level of the media today (is) equivalent to that of the 1960s and 1970s when, under control of Soviet censors, 'inflated cotton harvests' were the norm.'

Quite ironically, the uncompromisingly critical MSI report, produced by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), an international nonprofit organization, was designed in collaboration with and funded by Uzbekistan’s newest ally, the United States via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), .

Of course, Washington has criticized Tashkent for its draconian approach to the media even more directly in the past. A US State Department report from 2000, for example, declared: 'The (Uzbek) Government severely restricts freedom of speech and the press, and an atmosphere of repression stifles public criticism of the Government. Although the Constitution expressly prohibits it, press censorship continues, and the Government sharply restricts citizens' access to foreign media.'

These reports confirm what many have been saying for years. Numerous media monitoring alerts and human rights studies by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders, and Human Rights Watch all share the same criticism, put so succinctly by the experts in the MSI report: 'the term 'independent media' is not applicable in Uzbekistan’s current media environment, as no such media exist.'

Controlling the means of production

Indeed, the Uzbek media suffer from extensive, centralized government control that leaves no media outlet untouched. The control points on the traditional media are exactly where they were in the Soviet days.

First and foremost, the regime maintains the GosKomPechat (State Press Committee) that actively censors all information in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. Using a loophole in the law allowing the regime to protect state secrets in the interest of national security, agents of the GosKomPechat read through every article in print prior to publication, and they stop publication of all information they deem unfit for public consumption. The existence of this pre-publication censorship by the state is no secret, but a journalist who recently tried to discuss it openly in his paper found that his call for a relaxation of censorship was itself censored by GosKomPechat

The authorities justify this censorship by emphasizing the threat to the state posed by radical Islamic groups, notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization closely linked to Osama bin Laden. Indeed, the IMU has carried out some serious attacks on the state in the past few years, including an assassination attempt on the president himself in February 1999.

But just what ends up being censored often has more to do with sycophancy than any terrorist threat. Certainly anything not in line with the word of President Islam Karimov, the authoritarian leader who had himself declared 'president for life' in early December, would be scrapped by the censors instantly. Anything contrary to what the official news agencies report would also be unlikely to become newsprint.

However, with this tight control in place, journalists in Uzbekistan know better than to even try to slip something past the GosKomPechat, so, as in the Soviet era, self-censorship is commonplace. Authors and editors know what can and cannot be said, and with the ever-present threat of imprisonment or exile, they tailor their work accordingly.

To complete the regime’s control of the media, nearly all media are partially or wholly owned by the state. As in Soviet days, media outlets may be owned by different government ministries or local municipalities, but inevitably, editors-in-chief are political appointees and thus nervous about losing their relatively comfortable positions.

And if you want to create your own outlet, think again. The state controls the allocation of broadcast frequencies, and GosKomPechat issues licenses for print publications, making new, independent publications impossible to start.

In addition to the authorities' control over frequency allocation and print licensing, the state also owns all the major printing centers -- the actual printing presses -- and distribution networks. Smaller presses do exist, but, as the MSI report sharply comments, they dare print only accounting forms.

In short, the authorities have a lock on the traditional media, and there seems no way around it whatsoever.

New media, old methods

The authorities have approached new media in the same way they have approached old: they have centralized key production and distribution points and then insured they control those key points.

The details of this sad story are laid out in Uzbekistan Development Gateway’s E-Readiness Assessment of Uzbekistan from August 2001. The country has 44 ISPs, but only one ISP can legally connect users to the global Internet.

The 1999 Decree Number 52 of the Cabinet of Ministers granted monopoly access to the global Internet to a single company: UzPAK. All Internet connections to the outside world from within Uzbekistan have to go through UzPAK.

The authorities did not try to hide their reasons for creating this monopoly: in addition to encouraging IT development by offering preferential concessions to one operator, the authorities said, this arrangement would simplify their task of filtering and monitoring information flows.

As with the traditional media, possible ways around the system have been eliminated -- international telephone access is a monopoly of Uzbektelecom, a state-run enterprise -- and the extent of the authorities' desire for control reaches absurd proportions -- even users of Internet cafes must sign a document promising not to send messages with 'political or religious content.'

According to the E-Readiness Assessment, Decree Number 52 turned Uzbekistan into a 'pariah of the global Internet community.'

But do they bother?

By centralizing the flow of international Internet communication with Uzbekistan, the authorities can easily monitor communications between individuals within the country and those abroad, observe what local users are reading online and even filter online material, preventing outside sources of news from reaching Uzbek readers. But the ability to monitor and filter content does not necessarily mean the authorities are actively monitoring and filtering every bit every day, even when we consider their willingness, indeed their enthusiasm, for censoring the traditional media.

Joshua Machleder, Uzbekistan Country Director for Internews, an international non-profit organization that runs internews.uz, one of the few online publications in the country, says that theoretically, the authorities could monitor the Internet, noting this is true of many countries, but, 'It’s too hard to prove sites are being blocked.'

Some human rights activists in Uzbekistan have alleged that certain outside sites are blocked, but Machleder is suspicious of such claims: 'I personally don’t think that their claims are accurate or responsible. There are many factors going into a site's not being accessible, for example, the server being down...'

Also, as China recently demonstrated, the blocking of international sites can be turned on and off at will. In an effort to impress international delegates at October's APEC meeting in Shanghai, the Chinese authorities temporarily lifted its blocks of American Web sites such as CNN.com and the Washington Post. If blocking is only active some of the time, proving the existence of blocking is more difficult.

As for e-mails, it would seem people have mixed opinions about whether the authorities are reading them or not. Some people contacted for this article insisted on using encryption, which is not technically illegal in Uzbekistan, but others did not.

According to Machleder, the authorities' snooping efforts are most likely concentrated elsewhere: 'Definitely authorities have more professional and advanced equipment for tapping telephone conversations.'

Given the state’s penchant for Soviet practices, telephone conversations may indeed get tapping priority over email.

And maybe this is actually the only hopeful sign in the media monolith of today's Uzbekistan: perhaps despite their ability to monitor and filter material on the Internet, the Uzbek authorities don’t actually bother with it too much.

Price as a censor

However, the reason the authorities may ignore the Internet is not likely to be the result of their unfamiliarity with the new medium or their lack of understanding of its potential; rather it is the result of their awareness of the Internet's true reach and influence within Uzbekistan.

The MSI report backs such an interpretation, saying the authorities do not bother to prevent international news on the Web from entering Uzbekistan simply because access to the Internet in Uzbekistan is so low as to be insignificant.

According to the E-Readiness Assessment, there may be as many as 140,000 people in Uzbekistan who have potential access to the Internet, but in an overall population of about 25 million, that number is negligible. As the MSI report rightly points out, very few residents have Internet access, and even many newspapers’ editorial offices are without access.

Those citizens who do have access are concentrated in the capital, Tashkent; out in the countryside, there are not even newspaper kiosks in many towns and villages, let alone Internet access. Widespread poverty in Uzbekistan means that only one or two out of every hundred families can afford a regular newspaper.

Thus, cost would seem a better censor than even GosKomPechat, and the fact is, the authorities are right to ignore the Internet, as it currently plays only a miniscule role in the life of the country.

Soviets online

It is often said that the rise of the information age was one cause of the Soviet empire's downfall. An authoritarian state, it was thought, could not hope to meet the challenges of 'democratizing' technology, such as personal computers, fax machines, photocopiers and satellite television. In this view, the crumbling empire never could have survived the hammer blow to authoritarianism that the Internet supposedly represents.

But today’s Uzbekistan is proof that an authoritarian regime can coexist with the Internet. By centralizing control points, maintaining a grip on a monopoly ISP just as it maintains its grip on printing presses, the regime can monitor communication on the Web and block access to online information it considers dangerous to the regime’s continued existence.

Still, for the moment anyway, it seems that the Uzbek authorities are not overly active in their Web snooping; they have apparently satisfied themselves with simply establishing a means of monitoring and filtering Internet information and communication. They know their country is too poor for the Internet to matter much, so they feel safe ignoring it for now, assured by the knowledge that if the Internet ever grows into something serious in Uzbekistan, they have the tools in place to spy on their own citizens at will.

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