When Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan and assassinated the long-sought international terrorist Osama bin Laden, seemingly the whole world saw and discussed the news. Yet there were significant blackouts in some parts of the world, and Uzbekistan was one of them. The official Uzbek media did not immediately report the story of bin Laden's killing on the day of the event -- official sites like gazeta.uz or uzreport.com or the state wire service uza.uz were silent, as was uzmetronom.com, the semi-official site that often leaks stories early. The independent website uznews.net and Richard Orange of the Telegraph reported that the Uzbek government appeared to be blocking the information, and apparently only one news portal, 12.uz covered the Al Qaeda leader's death a day after the fact. Some commenters said in fact the daily newspapers had notices a day or two after the fact, but this was not confirmed from viewing their online versions.
When uznews.net journalists pestered colleagues in the official press as to why they weren't covering this sensational story, they had various excuses -- they hadn't seen the story validated on the official news wires, or they didn't have an Internet connection. The question is why Uzbekistan -- which also withheld coverage of the terrorist attack on the US on September 11, 2011 for a time -- tried to keep this news from the public. Possibly, the government feared that some domestic Muslim communities would react with anger and unrest, but there was no sign of such reaction. Or perhaps officials were waiting to see how the news would affect other countries before cautiously spinning the story in the government's interest. Uzbekistan formally participates in the "war on terror" and assists the US with the supplying of troops in Afghanistan, but it is uneasy about the war and seeks a peaceful resolution with forces that control neighboring territories and continually pose a threat of spilling conflict over into Uzbekistan. The bin Laden story couldn't be hidden for long, however, as Uzbeks have access to satellite TV, and were able to get the news from Russian or other foreign television stations, foreign broadcasting, and the Internet.
The Uzbek government clearly sought information control in the context of the "Arab Spring," which it has been nervously watching and hoping to prevent at home. In a EurasiaNet partner post from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Muhammad Tahir says Central Asian governments, as corrupt as those in the Arab states and facing the sake kind of poverty and dissent as the Middle East, have been taking measures to prevent public upheavals. In an action that appears not to have been much noticed, the Uzbek government has been replacing various previously-accepted religious leaders, notes Tahir: Saidjamol Masayaidov, the assistant dean of Tashkent Islamic University; Najimuddin Hasanov, the imam of Tashkent's Jurabek Mosque; and Jabborali Nurmuratov, the imam of the Yalangoch Mosque are just a few figures who have been removed from their posts recently, the Haraket news agency reported on April 7. There have also been raids on book-sellers and Turkish businesses believed to be distributing extremist religious literature. The crackdown seems on the surface to work, as there have not been any major demonstrations. Even so, says Tahir, new groups have appeared, for example a little-known Uzbek youth group named Yetar (Enough) that is calling on people to descend on Mustakillik (Independence) Square on July 1 with tents, food, and radios for the kind of prolonged sit-in for which Egypt's Tahrir Square became famous. Older opposition groups are calling for civil disobedience and non-cooperation. Tashpulat Yuldashev, an Uzbek activist and former Soviet diplomat has also said protests are being prepared and is calling on people to stay at home, or show up at work but not perform their jobs in a show of resistance.
Reporters for News Briefing Central Asia have gathered skeptical commentary from a number of sources about the size or power of such dissident groups in Uzbekistan. They cite the atomized and divided nature of past old parties and their inability to gain significant following especially among young people. Kholdar Vulkan, an Uzbek dissident living in Canada told NBCA that older dissidents must make way for young people. "The Uzbek opposition can unite only if the leaders of Erk and Birlik parties...step down and are replaced by charismatic young leaders," he said. The Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU) which unites Erk, Andijan refugee justice groups and the Tayanch (Support) human rights groups was unable to attract Birdamlik, as it disagreed with its aims, and has been criticized as too superficial and emotional by Farhod Tolipov, a political analyst in Tashkent. One Erk party member in Kashkadarya said even his own party leaders do not have respect because they have no experience with political struggle and are outside the country, out of touch with events inside.
Of course, these kinds of statements were said about Egyptian opposition parties and NGOs and leaders in exile, and yet the revolution could happen there when the right set of circumstances came together -- rising bread prices after Russia's wheat embargo following forest fires; increasing use of Facebook and Twitter to express dissent and gain followers; an army that generally refrained from firing on unarmed demonstrators -- and most of all, Al Jazeera TV, which was visible in many homes and which carried talk shows with leaders of protest movements at home and abroad.
It's the lack of an Al Jazeera equivalent in Central Asia (and less Internet penetration) that are among the main factors preventing mass movements from getting started. Russian TV does not play this role. And when it shows even the faintest signs of doing so, the Uzbek government propaganda machine reacts with a vengeance. A group of Uzbek women went around attacking Russian human rights activists in Uzbekistan after a controversial Russian film was aired April 24 describing the plight of the Russian-speaking population in Central Asia, fergananews.com reported.
The program was a feature of "Special Correspondent," a show broadcast on the Russian channel Rossiya 1 which can be viewed in Uzbekistan. The film showed Russian pensioners living in poverty, Russian students concerned at distorted history books, Russian restaurant owners suffering suspicious arson attacks, and the Uzbek government removing Soviet-era monuments to the outskirts of town and changing the Russian names of streets. Elena Urlayeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, was interviewed for the film, as were Tatyana Dovlatova and Viktoriya Bazhenova, also a member of the Alliance. Uzbek TV then countered with its own propaganda film, disproving the claims about the pensioner, for example, and accusing the Russian activists of libel. Activist Vladimir Husainov said the Russian human rights advocates in Tashkent weren't claiming that ethnic Russians lived poorly or that Uzbeks lived well, but addressing problems equally faced by the entire population.