Uzbeks look at the daily sampling of newspapers Scott Peterson/ GETTY IMAGES

Freed Journalists Do Not Make a Free Press

In the year and a half since he took office, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has freed all the journalists that his predecessor imprisoned. But the brutal legacy of the late Islam Karimov's quarter-century in power has not been overcome, and the country's press freedoms remain on shaky ground.

NEW YORK – During his first year and a half in office, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made press freedom a signature item of his reform agenda. After 27 years of censorship and iron-fisted rule by the late Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s news media are freer than they have ever been.

But further progress will depend on more than promises from a reform-minded president; it will require ending the legacy of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment that has plagued the country’s journalists for decades. And, it will mean making reparations to those who suffered most, including Yusuf Ruzimuradov and Muhammad Bekjanov, two of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists.

On March 15, 1999, Ruzimuradov and Bekjanov were arrested while working for Erk, an Uzbek-language opposition newspaper based in Kiev, Ukraine. Ruzimuradov was a reporter for the newspaper and Bekjanov was its top editor. After their arrests, they were tortured and extradited to Uzbekistan, where they were sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges of distributing a banned newspaper and planning a coup.

While the world closely followed Bekjanov’s case, Ruzimuradov’s fate remained a mystery during most of his incarceration. My organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), was aware of his arrest but in recent years could never confirm where he was being held or the state of his health. Each year, we included him in our annual census of imprisoned journalists, but attempts to verify whether he was even alive were always met with silence.

Throughout Karimov’s authoritarian rule, international advocacy for jailed journalists yielded few results. The president was known for severely punishing dissent, and he personally oversaw the imprisonment of his critics, including members of his own family.

But Karimov’s death, in September 2016, was an opportunity for change. In January 2017, CPJ wrote an open letter urging the country’s new president to release all of the journalists that his predecessor had locked up; our list included Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov. The next month, Bekjanov was released. Then, in February 2018, Ruzimuradov was finally released as well.

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I recently spoke with Ruzimuradov about his incarceration. He’s 53 now and says he wants to return to journalism someday. But at the moment he’s focused on recovering from the trauma he endured in prison. He remains weak; during his 19-year-long incarceration, he was forced to move millions of bricks as part of his punishment. He frequently went on hunger strike to protest his detention, and he still suffers from complications related to an acute case of tuberculosis. And, although he is ostensibly a free man, the government continues to restrict his movements.

Although Mirziyoyev has taken some steps to improve the country’s human-rights record, he continues to emulate some of his predecessor’s policies toward journalists. Some activists have even begun to call journalism the “revolving door” of Uzbekistan’s oppression. For example, just a few months before Ruzimuradov was released, two other journalists were arrested on anti-state charges. Bobomurod Abdullaev and Hayot Nasriddinov, both freelance journalists, were charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime.”

Fortunately, both men were released last month, after a court dropped the most serious charges. It was a landmark case in a country not accustomed to judicial rulings that go in journalists’ favor. With this positive turn of events, I am more optimistic than ever that Mirziyoyev is committed to helping Uzbekistan turn a corner. According to our research, for the first time in two decades, there are no journalists behind bars in Uzbekistan.

Still, headcounts of journalists in jail should never be the measure of a country’s commitment to press freedom. The authorities must now ensure that journalists are able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal. Official apologies to those who were imprisoned would convey that message to all.

Reparations would help as well. Both Ruzimuradov and Bekjanov have spent a small fortune paying for medical care since their release, owing to the toll nearly two decades in prison took on their health. Bekjanov is also navigating a bureaucratic minefield as he struggles to regain property seized following his conviction. If Mirziyoyev’s promises are to be more than empty commitments, he must vow that no other journalist will suffer the injustices these two men experienced. For Uzbekistan, theirs is a story that bears repeating, so that it never recurs.;

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