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Tortured, Imprisoned and Beterayed, Muhammad Bekjanov Fights Against Uzbek Repression

Muhammad Bekjanov (Pic. PN America)

The prestigious Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Prize 2013, was announced Wednesday. The recipient in the ‘individual’ category was Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, serving his 14thyear and second sentence in prison, while Sri Lanka’s Tamil-language newspaper the ‘Uthayan,’ attacked 35 times during its 28-year existence was awarded in the ‘newspaper’ category.
This blog featured the life and times of the ‘Uthayan’ in its post, Thursday. Today we will take a brief look at Bekjanov editor of the opposition newspaper ‘Erk’ and the political environment in which he wrote. 

Ranking 163rd (Sri Lanka) and 164th (Uzbekistan) among 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index, there are close similarities in the politico-legal environments in Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.
The New York-based think-tank Freedom House says, “Uzbekistan’s legal framework ostensibly prohibits censorship and guarantees freedom of speech and the right to independent information. In practice, such protections are systematically ignored by President Islam Karimov’s autocratic government, which exerts near-total control over the media.”
According to Freedom House, conviction for defamation and libel could mean paying hefty sums as damages and imprisonment. In 2012 Viktor Krymzalov was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay US$1350 for an article published without a by-line that he denied writing. Other offences that are legally punishable are the vague “interference in internal affairs” and “insulting the dignity of citizens,” while insulting the president can earn offenders a five-year jail term. In April 2013 Yelena Bondar was fined US$2000 for “promoting national, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred” despite having decided not to publish the offending article.
Freedom House says that virtually all the media organisations are directly or indirectly linked the state, which is totally controlled by Karimov’s autocratic government. Uzbekistan’s National Security Service manipulates what news is published and the fear of reprisals has resulted in extensive self-censorship. One person who dared to challenge the system was Bekjanov.
Bekjanov is one of four journalists imprisoned in Uzbekistan. He and fellow journalist from ‘Erk’ Yusuf Ruzimuradov were imprisoned in 1999. (The other two are Salijon Abdurakhmanov of news website ‘Uznews‘ imprisoned since June 2008, and Dilmurod Saiid – a freelance journalist – imprisoned since February 2009). Prison conditions in Uzbekistan are described by RSF as “appalling.”
Bekjanov is one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists. In January 2012, a few days before due to being released, he was incarcerated for a further five years ostensibly for breaking prison regulations.
He is said to be in very bad health and relatives and friends are only allowed occasional access to him. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a January 25, 2012 statement said, “In 2006, Bekjanov’s wife, Nina Bekjanova, visited him in prison, and told independent news website ‘Uznews‘ that the journalist had lost most of his teeth due to repeated beatings in custody.”
PEN America referring to Bekjenov’s health said, “On June 18, 2003, Bekjanov gave his first interview since his detention to representatives from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), who were allowed to visit him in a prison hospital in Tashkent. Bekjanov said that he had contracted tuberculosis, a disease that has become endemic in Uzbek prisons. Due to torture, he is now deaf in his right ear and one of his legs is confirmed broken.”
Bekjanov had begun challenging the State from 1990s by questioning the use of forced labour to harvest cotton and the environment disaster in the Aral Sea. And soon he was to become a critic of the Kiramov regime.  
“The regime took advantage of a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999 to silence its critics. Under torture, Bekjanov was forced to “confess” to being an accomplice to terrorism and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In January 2012, just a few days before he was due to be released, he was sentenced to another four years and eight months in jail on a charge of disobeying prison officials,” said RSF.
CPJ gave details of the new sentence: “At a January 18 hearing held at the penal colony, Bekjanov’s three cell mates testified against him, accusing the journalist of violating a prison order after he argued with them, news reports said. However, ‘Uznews’ reported that the inmates appeared nervous in the courtroom, which led the journalist’s lawyer to believe they had been forced to testify against him.”
“The authoritarian government of Islam Karimov holds the disgraceful record of one of the top journalist jailers in Eurasia,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “If Uzbekistan is to rejoin the international community, authorities must release all the journalists they are currently holding in retaliation for their work.”

Photographer Faces Jail For \”Insulting\” Uzbekistan

By: Adrian Jarrett. On January 23rd prominent Uzbek photojournalist and filmmaker Umida Akhmedova was charged by the country’s authorities for committing criminal offenses under Article 139 (“slander”) and Article 140 (“insult”) of the Uzbek Criminal Code after being reported by the Uzbek State Agency for Press and Information, a government media watchdog. The offending piece of work, “Woman and Man: From Dawn till Night,” consists of 110 photographs of traditional Uzbek life and was made with support from the Swiss Embassy Gender Program in 2007. Ferghana, a regional news website, reports that prior to being charged, Akhmedova was also questioned about her documentary, The Burden of Virginity, a 2008 film that chronicles the traditional social pressures for young women in Uzbekistan to abstain from sexual relations until marriage.

The Uzbek authorities state that they undertook an expert review of Akhmedova’s work and concluded that in her work, she made comments that were “unscientific, unsound and inappropriate” which resulted in a “disrespectful attitude towards national traditions.” In the review, particular emphasis was placed on the fact that Akhmedova photographs focus on the “undeveloped” regions of the country rather than more modern areas, leading to what the report found was a deliberately distorted image of the country.

The International Association of Art Critics have appealed to Uzbek authorities to release Akhmedova, stating that her work ” cannot be viewed as a “document” in legal sense, therefore it cannot be an agent of “slander”.” Some Uzbek and Kazakh art critics have also suggested that the authorities are not qualified to judge her work, an opposing report they made to the one made by Uzbek authorities asserts that those that reviewed Akhmedova’s work showed “incompetence” and “ignorance.” Also, Akhmedova told Ferghana that when she was interviewed at a Tashkent police station, her interviewer did not understand what an ethnographer was, indicating that little was known about the nature or purpose of her work.

Reporters Without Borders have condemned the charges against Akhmedova, describing them as “an absurd and flagrant violation of free expression.” Reporters Without Borders also reports that discussion of Uzbekistan’s social problems are not permitted and that the charges against Akhmedova reaffirms that any debate on Uzbek society is “unthinkable.”

However, despite these criticisms of press freedom in Uzbekistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov complained last Wednesday that his country’s media was “toothless” and told his legislators they should “create conditions for more active reporting by Uzbek media” particularly in areas of government policy.

Akhmedova, a graduate of the All Soviet State Institute of Cinematography, was the first camerawoman in Uzbekistan and won the 2006 Inter Press Grand Prize for Modern Photography in Central Asia. The charges against her have a maximum sentence of three years.

To see some of Akhmedova’s work, click here.

Photo Credit: Umida Akhmedova.