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Internet Freedom in Central Asia Beset by ‘Technical’ Difficulties

Governments in the region routinely censor online speech for short-term political goals. Could Uzbekistan reverse the trend?

by Ky Krauthamer 24 May 2019

Early this week, many popular websites in Tajikistan were down, hours after the country’s president expressed fears about the spread of terrorist ideas online in the wake of a deadly prison riot the authorities blamed on jailed Islamic State adherents.

 

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms stopped working, and by Monday evening, Gmail, YouTube, and all other Google services became unavailable, Eurasianet reported.

 

The blocks on some sites began on Sunday, the same day as the prison riot, according to the local news agency Asia-Plus, whose own site has been blocked for six months.

 

Google services began experiencing blocks two weeks ago, Asia-Plus said.

 

For Tajiks, this is nothing new. For years they’ve had to adapt to sudden outages affecting social media and news sites, often affecting Google, Facebook, and YouTube, but also Russian news and social media sites.

 

Tashkent’s Shocking Announcement

 

Although the outages are typically blamed on “technical problems,” in many cases there is a clear political motivation, as in 2013 when YouTube went down for several days after an opposition group uploaded a video of the lavish wedding of President Emomali Rahmon’s son Rustam.

 

Against this regional background, Uzbekistan’s move to ease internet censorship looks all the more surprising.

 

Daily life in Uzbekistan. Image by Peretz Partensky/Flickr.

 

On 10 May, the head of Uzbekistan’s information and communication agency, Komil Allamjonov, said service had been restored to the sites of around a dozen news operations and human rights groups.

 

Some of the sites had been blocked since 2004, RFE/RL reported.

 

The unexpected decision should be seen in the light of the country’s gradual liberalization since the death of longtime leader Islam Karimov in 2016, Catherine Putz writes in The Diplomat.

 

The brutality and isolationism of Karimov’s regime turned Uzbekistan into one of the world’s pariah state, but his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev earned respect in the region in further afield as he introduced a series of reforms, worked to ease tensions with neighboring countries, and reached out to the international community with steps like pledging to end forced labor in the cotton industry.

 

Allamjonov’s announcement that what he called "certain technical issues" with the inaccessible websites had been resolved came not long after the OSCE’s media freedom representative, Harlem Desir, called for the blocks to be lifted, RFE reported.

 

The U.S. government funded RFE has been perhaps the main provider of Uzbek news to Western audiences for more than a decade, but apparently remains a thorn in Tashkent’s side. Its Uzbek-language service, Ozodlik, was still offline as of 21 May, although the English service was available in the country, Eurasianet reported.

 

In a 20 May Facebook post headed “Official statement,” Allamjonov said the station’s journalistic standards were suspect. “Questions are raised by Ozodlik’s one-sided and prejudicial editorial policies. [The broadcaster] tends to a considerable degree to publish tendentious and often inaccurate material, which ultimately misleads the public and global audiences in general.”

 

Allamjonov suggested the broadcaster’s difficulties may stem from reluctance to take advice from the authorities.

 

In a September meeting, Uzbek representatives “called for mutually beneficial cooperation” with RFE through a “collaborative format that includes assisting Ozodlik journalists” to obtain information and working contacts with the authorities. The broadcaster had not responded to the offer, Allamjonov said.

 

In Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s richest and most outward-looking country, the media sphere is more vibrant than in Uzbekistan, but the trend is toward increasing censorship, Putz writes.

 

Kazakh authorities have resorted to blocking websites or cutting internet service several times in recent years. For months last year, social media users reported frequent slowdowns in the evenings, the preferred time for self-exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov to make live appearances on Facebook, Eurasianet noted.

 

Beating Tajikistan to the punch this month, Kazakh authorities blocked access to 10 or so domestic news sites on 9 May. Several human rights sites were also blocked.

 

Putz adds an acerbic comment about the eternal problems with online speech, not only in Uzbekistan: “What kind of ‘technical issue’ persists for more than a decade, in the case of some of the websites, and then is solved within a month? The only ‘technical issue’ behind website blockages in Central Asia is that of political will.”

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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