Iam standing in room 44 of the Uzbek State World Languages University in Tashkent, lecturing again on the virtues of independent media to my international journalism majors. The atmosphere is awkward because Uzbekistan is a Central Asian republic with a miserable human rights record, including Sovietstyle censorship.
“President Karimov is going to Washington,” I tell the class of third-year students who are of Uzbek, Russian, Uigur and other assorted nationalities. “He is going to be peppered with difficult questions about his authoritarian policies. I want you to pretend you are his advisors and develop answers for him.” This exercise requires students to consider criticisms of the top leadership—something not tolerated in public discourse here.
A young man stands up. Like the other male students, he is conservatively dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. “I suppose President Karimov will be attacked for suppressing dissent and for abuse of police power.” “Correct,” I respond. “How do you know that and, even more important, what will you advise him to answer if he gets such questions from the American press?”
“I go to an Internet café,” the student replies. “I can see what is written on EurasiaNet, Human Rights Watch, and other groups about Uzbekistan. I guess I would tell the president to minimize charges.”
Other students propose different approaches. Our give-and-take includes acknowledging the charges of police brutality and intolerance of extremists, but offering justifying explanations. We seek parallels in which American authorities have announced tough responses to terrorism after September 11th. We finally agree on something along these lines of advice for President Karimov on his trip to the White House in March 2002:
“You must understand, Uzbekistan lives in a troubled neighborhood. As president, I was the subject of an assassination attempt in 1999 in which more than 100 people were killed. It is essential for Uzbekistan to have stability for the moment so we can build up our economy. So we sometimes have to take strong measures. We, like you Americans, are in the forefront of the struggle against Osama bin Laden and international terrorism.”
I tell the students that President Karimov would do well to avoid getting rattled and to try to deliver the message with a smile if and when he addresses the American press.
Teaching About Freedom of Speech
Since the students in the international journalism major are supposed to be learning about the United States, we work almost entirely in English. I occasionally clarify issues in Russian when something is unclear. Although I am studying Uzbek, I am nowhere near able to teach in that Turkic language. The students, who are very curious about the West, seem to enjoy the roleplaying. It gives them a chance to express in the relative privacy of the classroom many different points of view that don’t show up in the Uzbek media. Usually they know English better than their Soviet-educated professors and are much better at using the Internet.
Teaching democratic values in an authoritarian country might seem paradoxical. It is one aspect of the $200,000 grant I received from the U.S. State Department for a three-year partnership between the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, where I teach, and the Uzbek university. Although there are many problems in Uzbekistan, I have come to believe that the future of freedom of speech in Uzbekistan, though problematical, is not hopeless.
President Karimov, who created the Center for International Journalism at the university by decree in 1999, has frequently said he wants to encourage a more professional media. But his Soviet-trained underlings seem to put obstacles in the way. “The president’s words go out and seem to float in the air. They hit a concrete cloud and there is no change underneath it,” said one American professor at World Languages recently. I asked Jamalladin Buranov, before he retired as rector last year, what he hoped the presence of American professors would do for the university and ultimately for Uzbekistan. He replied, “I want them to encourage the students to tell the truth. We must plant the seeds of free discussion. I’m not sure we’ll see the fruits in our lifetime, but we must plant now.”
Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It wrote into its new constitution that there should be no prior restraint—no censorship—of media. In flagrant violation of this constitutional assurance, Uzbekistan continued Soviet-style censorship on the grounds that military secrets had to be protected. Here everything hinges on definition. What affects national security? Should discussion of public issues really be secret? Uzbekistan continued to use the Soviet manual of forbidden topics, which was extremely broad. The manual itself was classified secret. No mention was to be made in the media about the censorship office, which was located in room 316 at 32 Matbuotchilar Street. The chief censor’s name was Erkin Kamilov.
On July 3, 2002, President Karimov made a dramatic decision. By decree he abolished censorship, eliminated the censor’s office, dismissed Kamilov, and declared that henceforth editors would be fully responsible for what was published or broadcast. If information was inaccurate or caused social turmoil, editors would find themselves out of a job. To show that he meant business, editor in chief Abdukayum Yuldashev of the newspaper Mohiyat (Essence) was dismissed July 19, 2002 for publishing an article by an author who had previously been blacklisted.
Censorship in Uzbek Media
To make sure that formal censorship was really dead, I visited room 316 during my most recent visit to Tashkent in November 2002. Sure enough, the censorship apparatus was gone. The space has been taken over by the newspaper Marifat (Enlightenment). Editor Khalimjon Saidov, who showed me the rooms, commented, “You see, all that is left are the iron door jambs.”
So what difference has the end of censorship made?
In television, which any ruler knows is the crucial medium when it comes to governing, very little has changed. Official Uzbek TV continues to glorify the president and downplay the country’s difficulties. Russian TV, which is available in the capital, gives a richer diet of international and Russian news, as well as entertainment. Occasionally, however, Uzbekistan jams critical broadcasts by the BBC and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.
To protect themselves, some newspaper editors have hired unemployed censors to act as consultants. That amounts to the privatization of censorship. Other editors are careful to exercise self-censorship. “You must understand,” says journalism professor Akbar Normatov, “when you yoke a horse to a pump and have him walk in circles for decades, there is no great change when the chains come off. The horse continues to walk in circles.”
Yet there are some subtle developments that we should not overlook. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a monitoring group based in New York, reports that a small group of reporters in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, have quit official media to send reports to Internews, an American organization that tries to promote independent television stations in provincial cities.
Some newspapers have begun pushing the envelope, too. Yash Kuch (Young Power), for example, recently published an article about media being the fourth estate of government, the implication being that independent media was more truthful than official media were. The independent newspaper Hurriyet (Liberty) published an article titled “It Is Better to Light One Candle,” about a September 2002 conference dedicated to freedom of speech. “Before you never found such articles,” one of my students told me. “Yes, these articles are not so critical but they were published.”
The atmosphere in the classroom has lightened up since I engaged the students in playing “presidential advisor.” Restraints at the university are softening. We can discuss issues such as AIDS, poverty, unemployment, prostitution, environmental pollution, health and the status of women openly. I don’t doubt that this worries some of the older professors who grew up under the Soviet system. On the other hand, the career of journalism seems more attractive now to the students. They are beginning to see it as a way to help Uzbekistan modernize, not just as a career that would allow them to travel out to the West (and possibly not return).
One curious issue arose last fall when a student wrote an article in a wall newspaper—an unofficial publication that doesn’t require official approval because it doesn’t circulate and is pasted to a wall—asserting America’s Statue of Liberty would break into tears if she came to Uzbekistan and saw the poor state of free discussion. At first the university administration tried to dismiss the student on grounds of poor academic performance. But, when the issue was described on the Internet, that initial decision was reviewed. The student was offered the chance to take a test, which he passed, and he was readmitted.
I tell the students that a major task before them now will be to develop a journalistic code of professional ethics. We discuss the usual issues that must be included—verification of facts, access to governmental information, protection of confidential sources, and so forth. “Unless you develop such a code, you’ll probably find that the government will develop a code for you,” I tell the students. “And you won’t like that.” They get the point.
The end of censorship has energized journalism professors, too. The joint American-Uzbek manual on independent journalism that I have been promoting for the past two years now has a reasonable chance of being accepted by the Ministry of Education and eventually being published. The Soviet-educated professors, wary of too much freedom of speech, seem willing to give the American approach a try.
The Future of Free Speech
Does any of this mean that Uzbekistan, a secular Muslim state, is moving towards free speech or democracy? Is the U.S. State Department succeeding in extending Western concepts to this farflung region of Central Asia where Russia’s influence is felt more strongly than America’s?
I would not get over-excited yet. Students who are lucky enough to win scholarships to the United States and study journalism find that when they return home they are looked upon as upstarts by their elders and do well to keep their foreign ideas to themselves. Furthermore, Uzbek society is organized along clan lines where personal influence, family ties, and bribery have a long history. Central Asia is an area where people are generally unwilling to wash dirty linen in public. Nevertheless, I do believe that freer discussion is important for identifying problems and examining a variety of solutions for dealing with them, even in an authoritarian state.
In June 2003, the Uzbek State World Languages University will graduate its first students in international journalism. Many of them know English well; some have visited the United States. All are curious about the world beyond Uzbekistan’s borders, and many are comfortable with the Internet. In the next three decades, these students might bring changes in Uzbekistan as the country strives to find its place in the world community. I am sure this will not be fast enough to satisfy the U.S. Congress, which finances my grant, but at least the logjam of free speech is groaning.
Nicholas Daniloff, a 1974 Nieman Fellow, teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and at the Uzbek State World Languages University, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.