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Pressure on journalists, bloggers mounts ahead of Uzbekistan's presidential elections

Otabek Sattoriy during one of his YouTube videos. (Screengrab from his Xalq Fikri channel)

Otabek Sattoriy ran a solo citizen journalism operation on his Telegram and YouTube channels until he was arrested January 30 on extortion charges.

The charges were immediately cited by media freedom and rights organizations as trumped up and a punishment for his anti-corruption activism in a provincial town over 600 kilometres from the capital Tashkent.

But these voices counted for little on May 10 when the Surkhandaryo regional court in the southeast of the country sentenced Sattoriy to six-and-a-half years in prison for extortion and slander.

Sattoriy's case was just the latest in a series of incidents involving journalists across the country that have left Uzbekistan's press fearing a return to darker days as presidential elections loom. 

Evidence against Sattoriy was only produced after the trial had started, highlighting the tenuous grounds on which the local court had ordered his arrest. 

Sattoriy was a thorn in the side of the local administration in the city of Termez.

His YouTube and Telegram channel output was hyper-local in focus, but touched on murky public sector spending and other problems that are systemic in the country of 34 million people.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, called the sentence “a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues as presidential elections grow near.”

Sattoriy ‘s conviction comes weeks after blogger Miraziz Bazarov was brutally attacked after issuing regular criticisms of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. 

Three masked men waited outside Bazarov's Tashkent home and attacked the blogger as he emerged from it on March 28. None of the men have been apprehended, but Bazarov has since been placed under house arrest. 

Bloggers on LGBT issues beaten, muzzled 

Bazarov, who does not identify as LGBT, has been a vocal advocate of LGBT rights, including the decriminalization of homosexuality.

In Uzbekistan, same sex relations between men are punishable by law with prison sentences of up to three years.

Two weeks before the attack parliamentarian Rasul Kusherbayev had said:

The day we allow (legalised gay sex) will be the day of our death.

After the attack on Bazarov, Komil Allamjonov, Chairman the Public Foundation for the Support and Development of the National Mass Media, released a video that urged foreign governments, NGOs, and journalists to refrain from covering LGBT issues:

In our country, where the majority of the people are Muslim, the society does not tolerate unnatural men and women. Our holy religion, Islam, does not allow it.

Allamjonov added that if the laws punishing same sex relations are relaxed and LGBT people become more visible, “the number of lynchings may increase.”

These kinds of declarations send cold shivers across the spine of the many LGBT people and activists who have been oppressed for decades in the country.

They also sharply exposed the limits of a reform drive that began in Uzbekistan after the death of its hardline first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016. 

Allamjonov and Kusherbayev have both styled themselves as progressive officials at the forefront of the bid to ease Karimov's strongly authoritarian system. 

Helena Fraser, the UN coordinator in Uzbekistan condemned the attack on Bazarov in a statement:

The U.N. also condemns hate speech, which is an attack on tolerance, inclusion, diversity and the very essence of universal human rights norms and principles.

Police detained Bazarov on charges of slander immediately after he was released from hospital on April 29.

Uzbekistan putting regime before reputation 

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a Tashkent-based Polish journalist who works for Al Jazeera, had gone to the hospital where Bazarov was being treated.

Subsequently, she came under pressure from the interior ministry, which accused her of spreading “negative and unobjective information” about the case. 

Pikulicka-Wilczewska had been in the news in the weeks prior to this incident, when she publicly accused an official handling her accreditation request of sexual harassment.

Pikulicka-Wilczewska said she had previously raised concerns about the official's suggestive behaviour with another government contact, who had told her the complaint was “being dealt with.”

The 24-hour scandal that played out on Twitter saw the foreign ministry backtrack and issue both an apology and accreditation to Pikulicka-Wilczewska. 

The foreign ministry also said that the government had fired the person she had accused of harassment. 

In the build up to this statement, Allamjonov, a former presidential press secretary whose foundation wields great influence over the local media scene, met with Pikulicka-Wilczewska in a show of support. 

Once famous for blanket suppression of freedom of expression, Uzbekistan is now keen to retain international goodwill as it positions itself as a more open country.

This new outlook has on occasion seen authorities respond proactively to self-inflicted freedom of speech scandals and attempt to portray them as aberrations. 

But the harsh sentencing of Sattoriy despite an uproar indicates that the regime may be reverting to type ahead of an October vote that will offer few real alternatives to Mirziyoyev.

Pikulicka-Wilczewska's victory over the system, meanwhile, proved a fleeting one.

On June 2, she tweeted that the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairshad refused to prolong her accreditation, triggering a fresh wave of condemnation from press freedom watchdogs.

“Denying accreditation to a journalist on account of her news coverage is simply unacceptable,” Said of CPJ wrote in the organisation's press release.

President Shavkhat Mirziyoyev has repeatedly called for critical reporting and told journalists earlier this year that he “stands behind” them and their efforts to highlight problems.

At present, his government is standing behind them and peering over their shoulders.

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