Global Journalist

Locked Out

Daniil Kislov, founder and editor-in-chief of Ferghana News, paints a bleak outlook for journalism in Uzbekistan and says the independent media in the country is in a “deep freeze.”

Kislov joined Global Journalist producers in an online conversation from his home in Moscow to explain what is keeping journalists out of the country and who is censoring journalists working in the country. Below is a Q&A of the conversation translated from Russian to English.

Ferghana is the most widely read Russian language news site reporting on the Central Asian countries of the former USSR. Kislov speaks about how his site is able to report on a country where the press is not free, self and government imposed censorship are prevalent, and a struggle exists for educating new journalists.

Global Jouranlist: Can you tell us about government censorship in Uzbekistan?

Daniil Kislov: In Uzbekistan exists the strictest form of censorship, which is completely like the censorship in the former Soviet Union. Itís important to point out, however, that officially censorship has been abolished a few times. In the beginning of the 2000s, laws regarding mass media were passed that forbade censorship in any form. Later, there were decrees by the president and cabinet of ministers that abolished censorship. So, by law, there is no censorship in Uzbekistan, but in reality it exists and is very strict.

The main censor of a newspaper is its executive editor, who feels a personal responsibility. God forbid that the newspaper prints something deemed wrong because the next day the editor will not only lose his position but will also be in prison. That has happened many times.

GJ: Are there any non-state run media organizations within Uzbekistan?

Kislov: Yes, there are a few nongovernmental entertainment newspapers that belong to private organizations. Some city or regional television stations are also nongovernmental, but that doesnít mean that theyíre independent. It means only that they are private companies. They are still under close censorship and control by the authorities. There is not a single newspaper, magazine or Internet news source that could be completely independent and report critical information on political or social topics in Uzbekistan.

GJ: What are the likely repercussions for journalists who openly print critical information, and what is the hope for the journalists who are imprisoned?

Kislov: Today, the conditions of journalism and the independent press in Uzbekistan are in a state of a deep freeze, a total winter, with a temperature of absolute zero. For any wrong word, journalists can be put in prison for many years or hidden in mental asylums or clinics, as what happened to Jamshid Karimov. Nobody knows about their fate, and they disappear into the prison system.

GJ: Are there any exceptions to this trend?

There are rare instances when a famous prisoner may be released coinciding with a visit from a Western diplomat as a show of Uzbekistan improving its human rights conditions.

When a legal case is brought against journalists in Uzbekistan, they are first called on by the National Security Service and are offered to either end their work or leave the country. Very often journalists agree to leave.

In the past 10 years, 20 or more journalists who worked for organizations like Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, BBC, Radio Free Europe, Reuters and AP have left Uzbekistan. There is not a single official, accredited journalist from an international news agency left in Uzbekistan. The only foreign journalists are from two Russian news agencies: ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti.

GJ: What fate awaits journalists in an Uzbek prison?

Kislov: Based on our information, eight or 10 journalists are in prison; the general public doesnít know about some of them. These Uzbek-speaking journalists were not put in prison on charges related to journalism. Often journalists are charged with corruption, bribery or, as was the case for Abdulmalik Boboyev, accused of defamation and insult to the Uzbek people. Abdulmalik didnít listen, so he was sentenced. Abdulmalik, like many other journalists who were asked to stop their work, simply left.

Abdulmalik left, but as he says, he left only for one year. I donít think heíll be given the opportunity to return, and it is dangerous for him to return because next to his last name theyíve already put an X that says: ďThis is a person who is harmful to the modern Uzbek government; this is a person who is an enemy of the modern Uzbek government, an even worse enemy that terrorists and Islamists.Ē

GJ: Can you tell us a how Ferghana News gathers and reports its news?

Kislov: I was born in Uzbekistan, and I have many friends in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; these friends have become my correspondents. There are about 20 people in the former republics of the Soviet Union in Central Asia who regularly work with us. When an important event happens in a region, when thereís a newsworthy story, we have always found a correspondents in the region, even in places where we had none before. Itís already happened several times. Itís our mobility, our capacity to quickly react to the news ó thatís what makes us known and gives us our authority.

If, say, thereís a Kyrgyz revolution ó the first one, youíll recall, began in south Kyrgyzstan in the cities Jalal-Abad and Osh ó our correspondents were some of the first to report it.

During the Andijan events of 2005, our correspondent lived in Andijan two weeks after all the other journalists were forced out. Our correspondent stayed there secretly, incognito.

The second Kyrgyz revolution began in the city of Talas. Fifteen minutes after the disturbances began, you could already see photos of Talas on our site. We didnít have correspondents there, but nonetheless, we were able to find them. We work very fast, and we are proud of that.

We donít have an office; we work from home. I am currently sitting in the kitchen of my Moscow apartment. There are two other editors in Moscow who help me write news. Our other employees, including Russian to Uzbek translators, an English translator, correspondents, stringers and fixers, all live in Central Asia.

GJ: Have you had problems with the government in Uzbekistan?

Kislov: I personally have never had any problems, but our publication, our agency and our correspondents in Uzbekistan have had problems.

First, Ferghana, our online news site, has been blocked in Uzbekistan since May 2005. Before 2005, it was sometimes blocked and sometimes not. For the past six or seven years, though, it has become necessary to go through a proxy server or other special programs that advanced users find to access the site.

One of our correspondents in Uzbekistan has been attacked twice, and the National Security Service has files on all of our correspondents. The correspondents have all been called in for questioning about their work. Some Uzbek journalists who worked with our correspondents have left the country because of the pressure. Theyíve received political asylum in Switzerland, Sweden and the U.S.

GJ: Do you know how many people read Ferghana online through proxy servers?

Kislov: Well, letís put it this way, our estimation is approximate. Through Google Analytics we find that everyday about 1,000 people in Uzbekistan access our site directly, not through proxy servers. Who are these people? They are government workers. They are people for whom the site is not blocked: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Service and the administration of the president.

Most of the siteís visits are by people in Russia, who read our site in Russian. Then comes the U.S. followed by Germany, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and so on. Some of the readers who seem to be in the U.S. or from Germany, I believe are reading us through proxy servers in Uzbekistan.

GJ: Is there any way to protect your journalists?

Kislov: We have practically no way to influence the situation in Uzbekistan. Before 2005 our agency had accreditation in Uzbekistan. Our correspondent Andrei Kudryashov was officially accredited in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan as a member of the foreign mass media. Then the accreditation wasnít extended. Because of that, we donít have any legal methods to help. Of course, we always try to find a lawyer, and we always try to find some way to protect our journalists.

We report on all of the attacks, transgressions and assassination attempts. We believe that the world community should know these facts. I think that our reporting provides protection for our journalists because when foreign mass media outlets write about what happens, it is a huge blow to the reputation and authority of those in power.

If Ferghana reports important news, it is reprinted by a high number of Russian publications and other foreign publications including Western publications that print in English. The immediate publicity is very good. In exactly this same way, we have protected other people, not just our journalists, but artists or journalists from other mass media outlets who were subjected to repression in Uzbekistan.

GJ: Do you publish stories without credit in order to protect those journalists?

Kislov: We almost never publish stories from Uzbekistan with the real names of the reporters. We always use a pseudonym, ďour correspondent,Ē or credit it to our own source. This is because we have felt more pressure against our journalists; itís done for their safety.

GJ: What does the immediate future of journalism look like for Uzbekistan?

Kislov: Imagine the following: youíre not a tourist but a regular person, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Youíre walking in the streets and taking pictures of buildings. Within five minutes an officer will come up to you and ask you for documents. If youíre not very cooperative, you could be taken to the police station. Who knows what theyíll do with you. They could accuse you of being a spy and say that you are insulting the Uzbek people.

Itís very difficult, but we try ó although itís practically impossible.

Special thanks to Lisa Woodson and Fedor Zarkhin for assistance with translation.

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