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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.”

Press Freedom Prize to Uzbek Journalist Bekjanov, Tamil Newspaper ‘Uthayan’


 

PM David Cameron with Uthayan’s publisher (L) and Editor (Pic.Daily Mirror)

The Press Freedom Prize awarded by Reporters without Borders (RSF), Le Monde and TV5Monde, went to a journalist and a newspaper whose sacrifice for the freedom of information in the face gargantuan challenges can only be described in superlatives. The honour presented in two categories – individual journalist and newspaper – went to Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov and the Sri Lankan Tamil-language daily ‘Uthayan.’ 

  

The awards, given at the Strasbourg city hall were received by Uzbek human rights defender Nadejda Atayeva on behalf of Bekjanov who has been in prison for the past 14 years, and by Vallipuram Kanamayilnathan and Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, editor and publisher of the ‘Uthayan.’
“This year we again salute the exemplary courage of men and women for whom reporting the news is a daily battle,” RSF’sPresident Alain Le Gouguec said. “Their activities embody the universal value of media freedom in a real and concrete way. Thanks to them, information becomes a force capable of enlightening, mobilising and advancing the cause of freedom.”
This blog will write in more detail on Muhammad Bekjanov tomorrow.
The ‘Uthayan’ is a regional Tamil-language newspaper published in Jaffna, in a majority Tamil-speaking region of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which was a war zone for most of the 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009. Founded in 1985, the ‘Uthayan’ was repeatedly targeted by Sri Lanka government, a paramilitary group that loyally served the government’s bidding – the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP), the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that was sent by India to guarantee the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, a multiplicity Tamil rebel groups before 1987 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels after that.    
While all the above are to be blamed for attacks on the ‘Uthayan’ and on media freedom in general in northern Sri Lanka, it can said unequivocally that the most sustained and deadly assaults came from the government military and the paramilitary group EPDP. What is also important is that these attacks cover the period from its founding in 1985 to April this year, which demonstrate that the intimidation has continued much after military combat came to an end in 2009.
Issuing an open joint letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai while she was visiting Sri Lanka in August, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) said, “Jaffna based ‘Uthayan‘ alone, has come under brutal attacks over 37 times and at least five of its journalists have been killed since 2002. While all these crimes were committed in an extremely militarised area, no one so far has been brought to book.”
As pointed out by RSF-JDS, the repeated attacks on ‘Uthayan’ is a clear indicator of impunity enjoyed by the Sri Lanka military and the EPDP. Journalists and newspaper distributors were abducted and murdered, the newspaper offices were attacked on many occasions resulting in the death of employees, the press was burnt and in a particularly brutal incident in 2011, news editor Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan was beaten up and left for dead. Threat to the life of Kuhanathan was so great that he not only worked but lived on the newspaper’s premises for many years.
Writing following the April incident in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) blog, its Asia Program coordinator Bob Dietz said “These attacks on the offices of ‘Uthayan‘ have been going on for years and typify the threats faced by the Tamil press in Sri Lanka. They also highlight the abysmal record of impunity that attackers enjoy in Sri Lanka. Under the ruling Rajapaksa regime, the record of abuse aimed at Sri Lanka’s media is unmatched in the country’s history.”
‘Uthayan’ publisher Saravanapavan, who is a member of parliament from the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is also the proprietor of the ‘Sudar Oli’ published in the country’s capital, Colombo. The ‘Sudar Oli’ too has come under threat; in 2009 its editor N. Vidiyatharan was abducted and held in detention for four months by the Sri Lanka police.
The ‘Uthayan’s contribution to media freedom was acknowledged earlier this month when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron visited the newspaper in Jaffna, while in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Speaking after touring the newspaper’s offices Cameron said, “Thank you for being so brave.”  He said he would convey the concerns and fears of ‘Uthayan’ journalists to the government.  

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.