Watchdogs slam government crackdown on independent journalists

Media watchdog groups have condemned the persecution of two journalists in Uzbekistan - one confined to a mental hospital, another in prison.

"We condemn the imprisonment and torture of independent journalists [in Uzbekistan] as in the Soviet era," Zuzana Loubet del Bayle, Europe desk officer with Reporters Without Borders (RWB), said from Paris on Tuesday.

RWB reported a day earlier that Ulugbek Khaidarov, an independent journalist in central Uzbekistan, was subject to increasing repression after his family spoke to the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about how he had been mistreated in custody.

The press freedom watchdog added that another independent journalist, Jamshid Karimov, President Islam Karimov's nephew, had been forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital. "These are practices worthy of the Soviet era, when people were treated as mentally ill when all they did was voice their disagreement with the official line," RWB said in a statement.

"We are appalled at such cruel methods [of repression] against these two journalists," Timur Alizhanov, Central Asia media freedom project coordinator with Adil Soz, a Kazakh-based NGO, said from the Kazakh commercial capital of Almaty.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also expressed grave concern over the fate of two journalists. “We’re shocked at the brutal methods used against these two journalists, including psychiatric detention, a hallmark of Soviet repression,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement last week. “If President Karimov is treating his own nephew in this manner, it’s hard to imagine how others might fare.”

Both journalists had once worked for the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) in the central Uzbek city of Jizzakh. Most recently, they had reported for international media.

According to RWB, Karimov went missing on 12 September. His friends finally discovered that he had been committed without any explanation to a psychiatric hospital in the central city of Samarkand. His wife has not been allowed to visit him there. "It is unacceptable that the authorities do not tell the families why they were arrested and their current condition," Loubet del Bayle of RWB said.

Khaidarov was arrested on what rights groups say was a clearly trumped-up charge on 14 September. When his wife was finally allowed to see him she was shocked by his state of health. She reportedly said her husband was under the influence of psychotropic drugs and had lost a lot of weight.

The watchdog groups demanded that Tashkent release the journalists. “We call on the Uzbek authorities to immediately release our colleagues Jamshid Karimov and Ulugbek Khaidarov, to stop harassing them and their families, and to allow them to work without fear,” CPJ’s Simon said.

President Karimov launched a massive purge of independent journalists affiliated with foreign-funded media in the aftermath of a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005. Since then, Tashkent has sought to eliminate alternative voices, including international correspondents, local human rights advocates and foreign-funded NGOs that support free media and democracy. A smear campaign in the state-controlled media has branded independent reporters terrorists and traitors, CPJ added.

Meanwhile, vaguely worded regulations adopted in the country in February further tightened control over journalists working for foreign news media. The regulations gave the foreign ministry wide discretion to issue warnings to foreign correspondents, revoke their accreditation and visas, and expel them. They also made it illegal for Uzbek journalists to engage in any form of “professional activity” with outlets not accredited by the foreign ministry.

Uzbekistan is among the worst human rights offenders in the world, according to 'The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies 2006' report by Freedom House issued on 6 September. The report is an annual compilation of the most dictatorial regimes in the world.