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New Study on Internet Censorship and Political Activism in Uzbekistan

BY Lisa Goldman | Friday, July 20 2012

Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive states in the world. It ranks 195 on Freedom House's list of 197 countries, with North Korea ranking last and Turkmenistan occupying the penultimate place. Under President Islam Karimov, the government controls virtually all the printing houses, newspapers, television and radio stations; journalists working for the few independent newspapers practice self-censorship, out of fear of harassment, losing their job or jail time. The government also exercises sweeping control over online content: The south Asian state is ranked by Reporters Without Borders as an "enemy of the Internet".

According to a new study published by the New America Foundation, the government "uses filters, monitoring, intimidation, and violence to keep people from freely accessing the internet." Sarah Kendzior, the author of the report, describes the situation thus:

The spread of social media and mobile phones has challenged state control over access to information through the internet in Uzbekistan, but has had little effect on political organization or mobilization. The control the Uzbek state wields over internet use is not only practical, but ideological and psychological.

The government has been filtering, censoring and blocking Internet content since 2002, claiming it does so in order to protect the populace from content that runs contrary to the "national ideology." Meanwhile, it promotes content and social media platforms, such as the local Facebook clone YouFace, which allows the government to monitor social media content while promoting its own message. Internal security officers also use physical intimidation that includes ostentatiously patrolling Internet cafes and preventing students from accessing them from early morning until evening on school days.

But the government tightened control over Internet content in 2005, following the Andijan killings — an incident that Human Rights Watch terms a massacre. Government forces gunned down an estimated 700 citizens in the eastern Uzbek city; the dead, which included women and small children, were amongst several thousand unarmed demonstrators protesting the imprisonment of 23 local businessmen who had been accused of Islamic extremism. Since then, an atmosphere of fear and repression has settled over Uzbekistan, even as the popularity of social media platforms, blogging and mobile phone apps has increased. But as pointed out in the paper, Uzbeks exercise serious self-censorship online, avoiding political discussions and sticking to light entertainment or personal matters.

The government's repressive policies coupled with widespread self-censorship are creating a deeply insular society, which makes access to a safe place on the Internet psychologically and ideologically important, posits the author of this paper. In other words, people are forgetting basic democratic values as they avoid reading anything political, lest they be discovered by government monitors and punished with a loss of personal freedom. Democracy advocates need to take practical steps that would help ordinary Uzbeks stay in touch with what is happening in the world and show them how to create safe online spaces for the exchange of ideas. Digital Freedom of Expression in Uzbekistan is an informative study that delves into the relationship between political activism, democratic ideals and digital freedom. It combines historical background and context with strong analysis and pragmatic suggestions. In short - a worthwhile read.