March 30, 2018
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: "You Can't See Them, But They're Always There: Censorship and Media Freedom in Uzbekistan." That was the title of Human Rights Watch's new report on Uzbekistan, which came out earlier this week. We want to talk to its author, Steve Swerdlow, who happens to be in Tashkent right now, and he's joining us on Skype. Hello, Steve.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Salom!
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Salom! You got to, as far as I know, to Tashkent earlier this week, two days before you released your special report on media freedom in Uzbekistan. Is that right?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah. Arrived here on Sunday-Monday.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You've been holding talks…
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah. It's been quite a few days here in Tashkent, or almost a week now, that we have been meeting with the government, meeting with human rights activists and also monitoring a trial, consequently, about the very issues that we published the report about, freedom of speech, which is going on in a Tashkent court, the Tashkent City Court.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I want to talk to you about your observations and then the monitoring of this ongoing case in Tashkent, but before that, let's focus a bit on your most recent report. Why focus on media freedom now? I know that you were in Tashkent sometime earlier this winter, and you started your conversations, interviews, research at that time, right, involving journalists and media analysts.
...without a free press, you can't really have meaningful reform.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah. When we were thinking about what could be the subject of our first report since we've been back inside the country—our first report collected in the traditional way we work, with interviews with people on the ground—we thought that probably the most logical topic would be freedom of speech and how journalists are experiencing this supposed thaw and the reform process that is going on in Uzbekistan, because without a free press, you can't really have meaningful reform. We thought that would be a strategic first theme for us, and we met with about 22 journalists in November, some of them working for registered publications, some of them working for independent or underground publications, and some of them working for international outlets like the BBC, and spoke to them about how they've been experiencing this new reality in the last year and a half of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What is that reality like? From here we observe several advancements. How does it feel there?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Well, and, of course, “Amerika Ovozi,” you guys, are feeling this every day, and Navbahor, you are a major part of this whole process, and I think in many ways what we're starting to see, on some level, is an emulation of the work that you've been doing for a long time. Journalists tell us that the situation has improved in the last year and a half in terms of what they can write about. We've seen stories appearing about corruption, stories appearing about the cotton harvest. Just recently, in fact, this week, there was, or a few weeks ago in fact, there was a teacher who tragically died when a car hit her. She had been forced to go clean the streets in Samarkand in anticipation of President Mirziyoyev coming to visit, and she was tragically killed in a car accident.
"You Can't See Them, But They're Always There." What that refers to is the fear, the censorship, and the self-censorship that are still pervasive in Uzbekistan, the fact that the security services are still really playing a role, and I think at least in the minds of journalists when they're considering what to write about.
Journalists started focusing on this controversial story, which was getting a lot of coverage. A journalist was actually threatened when he started writing about this. But then we saw in a very interesting development something that's very unprecedented for Uzbekistan. After the journalist made it known that he was being threatened by local authorities, the General Prosecutor's Office actually stepped in and offered him protection. Again, a very interesting, unprecedented situation for journalists covering sensitive topics.
I should say, though, we named the report, "You Can't See Them, But They're Always There." What that refers to is the fear, the censorship, and the self-censorship that are still pervasive in Uzbekistan, the fact that the security services are still really playing a role, and I think at least in the minds of journalists when they're considering what to write about. That is a major factor.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You say "in the minds"… I'm sure you have seen that the government reacted to your report, not necessarily directly, but there were several articles on state media, on local Uzbek media yesterday about how the laws of Uzbekistan do not allow censorship, and that the censorship, as a practice, ended a long time ago. What has been the reaction so far to your report from the officials that you have been meeting with?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: The response has been very open, as we've had since August. Our conversations with the Uzbek government have been open, and frank, and direct, often with disagreements but still, I think, very fundamentally important. We met with the Uzbek Agency for Print and Information, and their response to the issue was to say, "There's no censorship at all in the country. "
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So officially, there is no such practice. Right?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah, at least in that part of the government that was the response. But I think in other parts of the government, there was a more realistic answer, which was: yes, we agree, there are security services are still playing this role. Sometimes there was an explicit acknowledgement of pressure being placed on journalists, and more often it was a sort of implicit acknowledgement of the fact that the situation is still very far from where it should be.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How did they describe that kind of control when you talked to them? This is very interesting that officials are actually telling you these things.
Sometimes there was an explicit acknowledgement of pressure being placed on journalists, and more often it was a sort of implicit acknowledgement of the fact that the situation is still very far from where it should be.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Well, I would say the biggest fear factor is the fact that you have these ongoing prosecutions in Uzbekistan in relation to very vague and overbroad charges, sometimes for extremism. We brought two examples to bear in most of our meetings, the example of Bobomurod Abdullayev, who's a reporter, along with a blogger, Hayot Nasriddinov, who have been charged with being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government, which are really, I think, patently absurd charges. The case concerns the writing of articles which have been deeply irritating and, in some ways, arguably defamatory to the government.
The existence of those trials where people can face real jail time of up to 20 years has a major chilling effect on the journalistic profession. This affects the calculus of journalists who are thinking "What can I write about? Can I really write about the president's family? Can I really write about this official who's doing this?"
I think you've pointed out, in some of your presentations, that we see criticism mostly in the areas where President Mirziyoyev has already spoken.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah, that's exactly right, because when we talk to Uzbek journalists, they tell us that Mirziyoyev has sort of been a shield for them. Just the way every time he comes up with criticism of some reality in Uzbekistan, it serves as a green light then for local journalists to go after those issues. They are actually happy with that, and they argue with me and with others, and I'm sure they're arguing with you, too, in Tashkent, that that's the way to be, at least for now, in Uzbekistan; that this is the real change for now in the country, and that expecting more than that is basically too much. You're being too ambitious. You're just expecting too much from the society at this point. How do you see that?
The existence of those trials where people can face real jail time of up to 20 years has a major chilling effect on the journalistic profession.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: I think it's a fair point to say that you can't reverse or do away with 27 years of repression in one year and a half. That is, of course, true. We can concede that point. But I think there are other things that can and should be stopped immediately. For example, right now you and I are speaking on a Skype connection. I'm in a hotel which, one of the few hotels that has a strong enough internet connection for me to even Skype with you. Skype should be unblocked. WhatsApp should be unblocked, and of course all the internet websites, like Fergana, like your website. Our website, hrw.org, was still blocked today. I also checked Ozodlik. They should be unblocked immediately.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is VOA Uzbek site still blocked?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Well, it changes day by day, so I'll have to check, but Ozodlik is definitely blocked, Fergana, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations—a number of websites. The Committee to Protect Journalists. A number of them, unfortunately. So we've seen this [process] happening in fits and starts, opening and then closing.
There was a big conference this week here in Tashkent and a lot of international visitors, and we noticed the internet was working better, and now today it's been very bad again in terms of internet blocking.
They should be unblocked immediately.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Meanwhile, there is more of an international media presence in Tashkent. I'm sure you've noticed. We know that some reporters from the BBC Uzbek service are there. The managing editor and founder of Fergana News is there, Daniil Kislov, and several foreign journalists and analysts like you have been monitoring the Abdullaev case, Abdullaev and others, as you just mentioned, being tried on these charges against the regime. How is that going, and what are your main observations from this process?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: The trial has been, in a way, a cathartic experience, I think, for Uzbek society. I've been noticing, again, on the topic of local media, Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, outlets that earlier probably wouldn't have covered a trial that deals with such political issues as torture and overthrowing the government, are writing daily pieces chronicling the drama that is unfolding in this trial. And you have defendants being allowed [to testify] in an open courtroom. I couldn't have dreamed that Human Rights Watch would be able to monitor a trial like this a few years ago in open court, with defendants openly talking about torture.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Gazeta.uz and others have provided detailed coverage of this trial.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Absolutely, and I think what's so amazing to me is that we've heard testimony that really touches on every important issue in Uzbek society. It's really turned into a trial on the security services at the same time that the Parliament just across the road is considering a law, or did already pass a law, on the new security services agency [The State Security Service]. This is all very interconnected with media, with other human rights issues, and with the freedom of speech. All of these things seem to be on trial here.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You see that as a positive dynamic, right?
I couldn't have dreamed that Human Rights Watch would be able to monitor a trial like this a few years ago in open court, with defendants openly talking about torture.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: It is of course positive that the trial is so open, but I think the concerns about journalists being put away for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, I think that still is something that the authorities need to send a clear message on. As we've said in our report, it is very important that President Mirziyoyev and the government give a clear, a signal that it is not enough to just stop punishing people or freeing them from prison. You have to send a message that criticism is actually welcome in Uzbekistan. It is really important. One other observation that I think you'll find interesting is that at this very trial, Muhammad Bekjanov, formerly the world's longest-imprisoned journalist, is also monitoring the trial. Last night, I got to meet with Dilmurod Saidov, another well-known independent reporter who just got out of prison. Those are issues that the government can do a lot more with, and they need to do a lot more with, which is to send a clear message that freedom of speech is really a value that they stand by and will uphold.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What if they say, "Well, we have released 27 political prisoners so far. That's a huge number. For the past one year, we have a reform agenda that focuses on freeing the media to a great extent. Give us time. We're working on this, and more than ever, we need your cooperation, not criticism, right now"? What are you saying to them? Because I know you are hearing something like that from them.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah, I think the conversation between Human Rights Watch and the government has really matured. The government seems to be more comfortable, I think, receiving principled criticism, specific, not completely wide-ranging criticism, and having a back and forth. What we have been heartened by in Tashkent is a good response to several of our requests for the government and, I think, also for civil society organizations, to put on more public events which will feature journalists' critical views, which will allow released political prisoners to share their experiences. And I think there is going to be a conversation over the next few months about ways to deal with past abuses. Certainly we will be pushing for those sorts of initiatives because part of the success of the reform process should be dealing with past abuses and the abusive practices of the last 25 years. Those are the sorts of issues that we've been talking about. They haven't been easy conversations this week [with the government]. But I believe they have been mainly going in the right direction.
... part of the success of the reform process should be dealing with past abuses and the abusive practices of the last 25 years.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How do you see the role of the Development Strategy Center? We know that you have held meetings there, and they have been the driving force, right, behind promoting the reform agenda of Mirziyoyev.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Yeah. We've spoken with them about not just all these pending pieces of legislation, such as upcoming laws on journalists, laws to amend the Criminal Code on torture, laws on the security services. But we have also spoken about the need for press conferences. They seem to be playing a very constructive role.
But I think it is also important that the Justice Ministry change the way in which independent groups are registered by the authorities. In the last few months we saw an [independent] group that works on disability rights get registration. We've seen an activist in Bukhara, Shuhrat Ganiev, finally, after seven years, get registered to work in Uzbekistan. I think we need to see a relaxation of the requirements for groups to register, and that also, of course, applies to journalists. The BBC’s local correspondent should be accredited. That's something we wrote about in this report. It's taken far too long. It's been 10 months since Foreign Minister Kamilov's statement that the BBC would be allowed to operate in Uzbekistan, and I think it's high time that they start having that opportunity along with other new services such as yours.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Have they told you why? Why has it taken almost a year, and BBC hasn't gotten any clear response yet?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: We haven't gotten any clear response. I think one can only speculate that there is an identity struggle within the government about how quickly to open the floodgates, perhaps, as they see it.
I think one can only speculate that there is an identity struggle within the government about how quickly to open the floodgates, perhaps, as they see it.
A free media poses challenges to the government that they're going to have to deal with. Many sensitive, uncomfortable conversations are going to have to be had about people in power, including, perhaps, some of the actions they've taken in the past during the Karimov period. So there are many reasons I can see for the government to be nervous about this. But on the other hand, I think the voice that seems to be winning out, and I hope will ultimately win out, is the voice that says, "Without a free media, without dealing with uncomfortable, sometimes irritating, sometimes even obnoxious, criticism from different corners of society, we simply can't succeed—we won't be able to go forward."
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Are you still serious about naming and shaming in your approach towards governments like that of Uzbekistan? Because that's what the Human Rights Watch is known for, as you know, and we know that the Uzbek authorities resent that. In my conversations with them, they have told me several times that, "We hope that the Human Rights Watch will not be doing that, because we really want to have a productive relationship, and we really want to work with this organization, and in terms of their recommendations, we're taking them seriously, but they are still asking the European Union and the United States and other international partners to constantly push us, and that may not be productive."
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Well, as I said, I think in terms of the now perhaps three rounds, if not more, of government meetings that we've held on a high level since August, the contact between Human Rights Watch and the government has been, like I said, open and frank and constructive. I think we've succeeded in proving that our role as a critical independent voice really carries some value for the government. We have made extremely specific recommendations about not just changes of the law, but, again, political prisoner cases that really raise alarm, social and economic rights issues, and we've gotten a good response.
... the contact between Human Rights Watch and the government has been, like I said, open and frank and constructive
In terms of the international actors, it is important, in our view, that the West and the international banks that are now engaging with Tashkent more, such as the European Bank on Reconstruction and Development, that they not move too quickly to cheerlead or to applaud reforms that haven't been implemented yet.
It's important that they engage. We're all for engagement, but it should be engagement that is principled. And just as many people have said, “Test but Verify.” I think it was Reagan said that. “Test but Verify.” There should be concrete, verifiable improvements in the human rights record in order for many of those programs to go ahead, or they should be happening concurrently. If that is “naming and shaming,” then yes, that is what we do. But we also engage, and provide very important, constructive recommendations.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: We've talked about this before, the deadline thing… Many international watchers wonder if the Mirziyoyev administration has a certain period where it has to prove what it is capable of, where it has to deliver certain clear changes so that the world can see and say, "Yes, this is a new Uzbekistan. Yes, we can be confident enough to say that the country is changing and it's not going deeper into the authoritarian ways of doing things, but it's actually walking out of it very slowly." Do you have the kind of a deadline in your mind when you analyze things in Uzbekistan? How patient are you going to be before you start basically saying that Mirziyoyev is not taking Uzbekistan on to a democratic path, but actually modernizing or strengthening the authoritarian system that he inherited?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Your analysis is excellent of just how complicated this is. Of course, I don't have a deadline or a timeline in mind. I would be the first to say that this is a dynamic situation in terms of being on the ground and witnessing the changes here. I certainly do recognize and acknowledge, we acknowledge, as an organization, that there have been changes. There really have been significant, positive steps taken. But we look toward the structural and sustainable changes. We look at the obligations that Tashkent has voluntarily taken on itself in terms of international treaties and human rights instruments that Tashkent has signed. Those are things, again, that should be implemented immediately.
... we look toward the structural and sustainable changes.
One thing I have noticed is that many of the recommendations—and you were talking about naming and shaming—much of the criticism that Tashkent had been dealing with or hearing about for the last 13 years, they [the government] had a lot of time, in a way, for those recommendations to sink in. I think many for a long time now in the government knew how important it was to implement those things. Many of the changes we're seeing now happening at a rapid pace really are those changes that have been called for by the international community, and by human rights organizations, for a long time.
It's no coincidence, I think, that the 26 political prisoners that we've seen released are prisoners that we've been talking about, and that others have been talking about, for many years.
The conversation is much more advanced, I think, than we sometimes think it is. And while it will take time for there to be structural changes, many of the immediate things can be done now. Ending torture, releasing all political prisoners, ending censorship. Those are the types of changes that can be done quickly. Health and human rights, infrastructure, education, so many of the other things, I think, are going to take a little bit longer.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, I want to confirm the numbers that you give on the released political prisoners. In your report, you say at least 27, but now you are saying 26. Is there one political prisoner whose fate is not clear?
... at this moment I can report that from just that report of 34 individuals, 24 of them were released by President Mirziyoyev.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Well, that has been something we've been trying to verify. We've gotten further information. In fact, it may be 27, but that is subject to a little bit more confirmation. I was in the General Prosecutor's Office yesterday trying to get confirmation on that 27th person, but one thing that is very significant is that you remember, I think you interviewed us three years ago, or almost four years ago, we did a report on political prisoners in Uzbekistan, and we chose 34 cases that were very high profile. These were human rights defenders, journalists, religious figures, and also political activists, and at this moment I can report that from just that report of 34 individuals, 24 of them were released by President Mirziyoyev. About four of them were released by President Karimov. Two of them, tragically, died in prison, but there are four left, or maybe perhaps even three left. We've been recognizing that fact, and we've also been talking about the other prisoners in jails now. But that is a significant fact, and we've been pointing that out in every conversation.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What is new in terms of your goal to open an office in Tashkent? Are you still determined to open an office? How is that process going?
You have to give the Ministry of Justice 20 days' notice. That should change.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: As I have said earlier, the Ministry of Justice is the agency that deals with registering organizations. As you know, the Justice Ministry played a very negative role after Andijan in terms of liquidating many organizations, taking away their registration, and making it almost impossible for groups like ours to function in the country. Beyond getting visas and being able to visit Uzbekistan, it is very important to Human Rights Watch that the space for and the operating environment for international NGOs and local NGOs be liberalized. There is a decision on the books from the Supreme Court in the year 2010 which restricted our ability to operate, and we are in discussions right now with the government about how that decision can be revisited, perhaps by the Ministry of Justice, perhaps by us in some sort of appeal, but I think that conversation is definitely happening.
It's being raised by several governments, and it affects not just us. It affects organizations like Freedom House. Beyond the issue of a ban, there's also the issue of many of the logistics or the pragmatic concerns. For example, you still need to provide 20 days of advance notice before you can put on a press conference or any sort of meeting or event. You have to give the Ministry of Justice 20 days' notice. That should change. This makes it extremely difficult for local groups and international groups to do their work, and so I think we see a justice minister who is very young and energetic, and we're hoping that he will be one of the people to take the initiative, along with other parts of the government, to liberalize this space.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Meanwhile, you have a multiple entry visa, and you can freely, basically, operate, tour Uzbekistan, talk to people without any pressure, or has there been any pressure or control over your activity so far?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: No. I think the first rule as a human rights defender is "Do no harm." Of course, make no mistake, Uzbekistan is still a country with a severe human rights record, so in every meeting I do with citizens, I have to always think about my responsibility to be, not just be professional, but to be safe. There are still so many sensitive issues that are being discussed here and that people have faced real consequences for talking openly about. The most important thing is my ethical responsibility to victims of human rights abuses and to other people. But in terms of my own experience here in Uzbekistan, it's been very positive, and it's been really without interference, I can say.
Uzbekistan is still a country with a severe human rights record.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You research not only on Uzbekistan, but on the rest of the region too. If you were to compare the media freedom, the level of media freedom in Uzbekistan, to those in the neighboring countries, what do you see? How free are the region’s media now?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Sadly, the developments in Central Asia, apart from Uzbekistan, on press freedom have been abysmal and have been extremely depressing this year. We've seen Kyrgyzstan really take a nosedive in terms of the filing of what we would say are baseless defamation lawsuits against different journalists, and journalists being forced to flee the country in the past year. In Tajikistan, we've seen maybe about 20 journalists flee the country between 2016 and the present. In Kazakhstan, we've seen the head of the Writers' Union brought up on baseless charges, and of course, in Turkmenistan, absolutely no press freedom, the worst ranking in terms of press freedom.
Uzbekistan, in many respects, has been a story of hopefulness and of some progress, some modest progress this year. Up until last week, there was still a journalist in prison, Gayrat Mikhliboev, who was released. He had been in jail for 16 years, since 2002, and by our count, he was the last journalist behind bars. Of course, that could all change if Bobomurod Abdullaev and Hayot Nasriddinov go to prison here in Tashkent, which I hope will not happen.
We also even wrote about a Facebook user who was brought up on charges for criticizing the Prime Minister. We've seen a number of cases that we're trying to bring together for the government's attention to get the message across that freedom of speech and freedom of expression often include a lot of irritating and difficult subjects for authorities, but they have to deal with that. That's a part of their international obligations under international law.
Uzbekistan, in many respects, has been a story of hopefulness and of some progress, some modest progress this year.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Are you getting any interview requests from Uzbek media, online media specifically? How interested are they to discuss your report with you?
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Very interested. Gazeta.uz, Kun.uz, have approached us, Podrobno.uz, and there may be a few others that I'm forgetting, but we were able to tour a TV station “Mening Yurtim “MY5” and had a chance to speak with the young reporters there, which was really exciting to see. We spoke with them a little bit as well about our research.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Wonderful, Steve. Good to hear that you're spending time with Uzbek journalists, that you're in Tashkent, and good luck with everything.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Thank you for all that you're doing for press freedom in Uzbekistan, Navbahor.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you, Steve, for talking to us, and I'm going to remind our viewers that Human Rights Watch's 37-page report is online on their page.
Steve Swerdlow, HRW: Thank you, Navbahor, and I hope to see “Amerika Ovozi” here in Tashkent very soon.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yeah. We want that. That was Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch who joined us on Skype from Tashkent. I'm Navbahor Imamova in Washington.