Thursday, 16 October 2008

Witness to Absurdity

Given what I've written about Uzbekistan in recent years -- and assuming the visa-issuing officials in Tashkent have heard of Google -- there was never much chance of me getting into the country under normal circumstances. But an opportunity came in autumn of 2008, when I was able to go as part of an EU-sponsored conference. The experience of visiting Uzbekistan again after five or six years away was welcome yet disturbing. This is the piece I wrote upon return, for Transitions Online on 16 October 2008.

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Arriving at Tashkent airport is not a pleasant experience. For foreigners, it means three or four hours in the tumbling scrum of Uzbek customs and immigration, with hundreds of people cramming up against each other to get through the paperwork. It’s not just the chaotic developing world, “this passport control is taking forever” sort of thing, but a literal shoving match for hours on end. It would be hard to imagine anything worse, but then, you don’t really have to: you just have to look at the pitched battle at the passport control booth for Uzbekistan’s own citizens.

Physically and emotionally wrecked on the other side of official procedures, arriving passengers don’t even have the small retreat of a café or bar to restore themselves. Actually, there are no signs of business of any kind. No advertising for hotels. Not even a taxi rank.

The situation alters little on the drive into town. As the minivan drove to my hotel in the city center, I saw, street after street, that the place hadn’t changed very much since I was last there in 2002. Or maybe even since I first visited the Uzbek capital in 1994. Few, if any, new shops. No big advertising campaigns plastered on billboards everywhere – apart from the government slogans, of course.

In fact, there’s not much at all to suggest this airport, this city, or this country is in any way connected to the rest of the world. If we all now live in a global village, Uzbekistan is not exactly a house on the green; it’s more a hunting cabin out in the woods over the hill.

Hail to the chief

I was in Tashkent to speak at a “media liberalization” seminar co-sponsored by the EU and the Uzbek government. Given the 17-year-old country’s 17-year policy of suppressing freedom of speech, it was an obvious absurdity – about as logical as an international conference on food security in Pyongyang, a gun-control symposium in Texas, or an Oktoberfest in Riyadh.

But the event, titled “Liberalization of Mass Media: An Important Component of the Democratization of the Society,” was destined to take place, and rather than hear about how wonderful it was from the regime afterward, I decided to accept the EU’s invitation to take part as a representative of the International Crisis Group, along with other international organizations that have also criticized the regime consistently over the years: Amnesty International, Article 19, La Fédération Internationale des Droits de l'Homme, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and the Open Society Institute. Together in Tashkent we bluntly pointed out the regime’s serious failings, and upon our return, we set the record straight about the seminar, lest anyone think the regime was making any progress on media freedom or human rights more generally.

Somehow still, the conference – which took place in an aberration, an international-standard hotel (built and run by a Turkish firm) – exceeded my expectations of the surreal. For two days, I listened to one Uzbek media representative after another describe a mythical world of improving media standards and progress on journalistic freedom using the strangest of evidence.

One speaker, the head of the network of government-controlled “non-governmental television stations” who had previously given us a tour of his central studios, tried to convince us that the stations’ new computers and recording equipment proved the country’s ever increasing media liberalization. Another highlighted the growing number of websites hosted in Uzbekistan. Yet another used graph after graph in a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate that the number of newspapers and magazines had been steadily increasing in recent years.

It seemed almost too easy to point out to them that none of this was evidence of media freedom. The representatives of international nongovernmental organizations noted the numbers of Uzbek journalists and other citizens imprisoned, in exile, tortured, or murdered for exercising their right to express themselves freely. We described how, since the 2005 Andijan massacre, when Uzbek security services shot dead as many as 750 civilian protesters in the eastern city, the regime had systematically prevented independent international journalists from receiving accreditation to report from within Uzbekistan. We detailed the state’s extensive blocking of external websites to prevent Uzbek citizens from receiving information from abroad.

And then we asked why the Uzbek media never covered these stories and others. You’d think that when a critical journalist is killed or arrested on spurious charges, the media would be concerned and write about their fellow reporters. But there has been no domestic media coverage of people like Alisher Saipov, murdered nearly one year ago, or Salijon Abdurahmonov, who just received a 10-year jail sentence on trumped-up drug charges.

We asked why Uzbek media failed to discuss the legal aspects of President Islam Karimov starting an unconstitutional third term after falsified elections last year. And we asked why no one was covering the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields as yet another harvest period was beginning, while ignoring Wal-Mart’s fresh announcement that it was boycotting Uzbek cotton.

In every case, the reaction from representatives of the state-controlled media was the same: rather than explain why they didn’t run these stories in print or on air, they launched into extensive defenses of the regime and its policies. We never got a word out of them about Uzbek media coverage. It was all “hail to the chief,” all the time.

Early on in our questioning, one young reporter for a state newspaper came up to me quietly and said, “I must tell you the reason why they don’t report these things. They cannot because they are scared of losing their jobs and what the National Security Service might do.”

Of course, I knew that already. Actually, self-censorship driven by fear of the secret police was a key theme of my prepared speech for the conference. It was oddly heartbreaking to think this reporter didn’t understand I was asking questions to which I already knew the answers simply to underline how Uzbek journalists are completely subservient to the regime. He’d simply never heard anyone ask these questions out loud before.

He was not the only Uzbek journalist who approached me privately over the course of the two-day seminar. A few daringly came up to me during coffee breaks. Others found me in the men’s room. Each one said more or less the same thing: some combination of, “Thank you for saying these things,” and “I agree completely, we are afraid.” Most – though not all – of them were younger journalists, not the senior editors and other official speakers at the conference’s main table who were spouting anti-Western tirades and pro-regime rants that would not have been out of place in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Perhaps such quiet protests mean there is some hope yet for the future of media freedom in Uzbekistan, if only the blanket fear imposed by the National Security Service could be lifted. But in a state that has been dominated by the secret police for the whole of its existence, that’s the biggest “if” one can imagine.

From the set speeches of the Uzbek side, however, we heard nothing new, nothing to suggest any change would be forthcoming in the regime’s all-controlling approach to media. I’d heard their suggestions that the state was liberalizing its approach to the media before, specifically on my last visit in 2002. In the intervening six years, not one independent newspaper has appeared in Uzbekistan. Not one television or radio station has broken free of government control. The two or three websites that have tried to report the news honestly have been swiftly blocked or shut down.

If anything, the situation has gotten worse. Since the Andijan massacre, international NGOs have been forbidden to work within the country, and foreign journalists cannot get accreditation. At least in 2002, journalists working in Uzbekistan for IWPR and TOL, for example, could usually publish their articles abroad under their real names.

Today, Uzbek journalists could never dream of speaking freely, at home or online overseas. To be honest, I, too, felt a small fraction of their fear in Tashkent, as I received repeated messages from several people to edit or at least tone down my prepared speech on Uzbekistan’s Internet censorship.

I wanted to believe that my EU invitation and my UK passport would protect me somehow, though I also knew that the security apparatus is dangerously unpredictable and prone to extreme violence when it comes to shutting up its critics.

Such a dominant position of the state in the provision of information is hardly unique to Uzbekistan, of course, but in a way, it’s somehow sadder here. This is not a completely undeveloped country: it may not have a Starbucks, but in things that actually matter, Uzbekistan has some good statistics. Literacy is near 99 percent, for example. All the greater the shame, then, that such educated people have no stimulating and independent press to read.

No way out

Fear, pity, sadness, and exhaustion were all mixing in my head as I rode back out to the airport to subject myself to the hours of inhumanity in getting a boarding pass, pushing through customs control, elbowing my way up to the passport check, shoving through the crowd at the security check, and then being forced into a tiny corridor with hundreds of people from three different flights all scrambling to get through the same doorway.

“This is the worst airport procedure I’ve ever seen,” said an older Western diplomat who happened to be forced up against me in the crush. “It’s worse than anything I ever experienced in other parts of the former Soviet Union, or even Africa.”

I had to agree. I’ve been through some pretty crazy airports, but Tashkent wins the prize for dehumanizing travelers. About its only advantage is that it offers a tiny window for foreigners to see how the Uzbek regime treats its own citizens all the time. But, of course, the experience is hardly the same, as we don’t have to live with it every day.

I wish I could say I flew out of Tashkent with some kind of hope for the country’s press or its people. But I didn’t. The level of repression exercised by the regime is so intense, not just on the media of course but on every aspect of life, that it seems impossible to believe things can go anywhere but downhill. With no outlet for public discontent – no opposition political parties, no public debate about where the country is headed, extremely limited economic freedom, and no independent media to air popular grievances – social frustrations will only grow, building up pressure until, as at Andijan, there is another uprising against the state that sparks a disproportionately violent response by the regime. And maybe next time, events won’t stop at one town but spread to the rest of the country and beyond, threatening the region as well.

As I settled into my airplane seat, I wanted to feel something more positive, anything that might be an encouraging sign that such dire predictions may not come true. But as I sensed the plane lift up into the air, I only felt a dull and selfish relief that I was leaving.

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