ZHANAOZEN, KAZAKHSTAN: Nurlyek Nurgaliyev may be one of Kazakhstan’s most famous activists—he survived a police shooting during the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre. But he was not among those who started the January protests that spread across this country, resulting in 238 deaths and more than 10,000 people detained by police.
“They were just usual guys who started it,” he said in his deep voice, the result of the bullet that pierced his vocal chords and circled his heart for a month before doctors were able to extract it. There was a touch of envy in that bass voice. He had been protesting, getting arrested, and imprisoned over rising gas prices in Zhanaozen for years. This had been his issue. He’d even had a meeting with the regional mayor a year ago, he said, where he advocated the price should be no more than 50 Tenge “because we are literally sitting on the gas.”
Nurgaliyev drives a water truck for the oil companies but he is also an activist who is detained on average seven times a year. In the past two years, he has been imprisoned three times for his protests on the gas situation. The first time he received a 10-day administrative sentence. The second time it was 15 days and the third time was 20 days, according to court papers he showed me.
But on Jan. 1, several local guys—not the usual activists—made a video complaining that gas prices had doubled in Zhanaozen, from 60 Tenge a liter to 120 Tenge a liter, and announced they were going to have a “meeting”—the English word used in Kazakhstan to mean protest. The men posted the video on YouTube and WhatsApp, which is where Nurgaliyev saw it.
So at 9 a.m. on Jan. 2, Nurgaliyev showed up at the city roundabout in front of the regional mayor’s office. The crowds swelled throughout the day and closed the roads. Several yurts were erected. He and other protesters characterized the protests that went on for six days as peaceful. There were a couple of police cars the first two days, but the officers just watched and then they were gone, he said.
“We started wondering why they were gone. It was unusual. Normally they detain us,” he said.
Zhanaozen is a dusty, desert town in western Kazakhstan about 90 miles from the Caspian Sea. Home to 150,000 residents, Zhanaozen (pronounced JA-NA-OO-ZEN) was mostly known for its rich oil fields and the oil workers' strike in 2011 that turned violent when police started shooting. The official death toll is 15, but protesters and their families insist that the real total is about 100.
Nurgliyev and others say there are no independent media in Zhanaozen. News of the protest spread through the country via social media by ordinary citizens and bloggers who posted photos and videos online. On Jan. 3, Saniya Toiken, a reporter from Azattyq—the Kazakhstan website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty —arrived in Zhanaozen.
Those videos show people bundled up in winter coats huddled together as they listened to speakers standing on a small platform near the town’s sculpture of a black snow leopard with golden wings. In the background is a building with a three-story-high mural of the famous Kazakh writer Abai with the words “Keep your intelligence, courage and head together and then you will be different from the crowd.”
Each day the crowds swelled and each night a group of young men wearing covid masks showed up trying to provoke violence. Nurgaliyev said the old men told them to go away.
“I was surprised by how organized the protest was, how quiet and polite people were,” he said. Speakers at the protest were provided a microphone by the mayor, he pointed out.
As the protest continued, a negotiation ensued between the government and protesters. Nurgaliyev said he was one of four protesters at this negotiation table. The protesters' requirement was that no one would be questioned or detained by police for their participation; no one would be prosecuted; gas workers who left their jobs to protest wouldn’t lose their jobs and would still be paid. The government and the gas company met the demands and the protest ended January 8 about 2 p.m.
"I wanted people to show up for protests for so long," he said. "We couldn't get people to go. Now I'm glad the January protests happened."
It's been a few weeks since I left Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, and ventured into the regions of this ninth-largest country in the world. In three weeks, I have traveled 9,821 kilometers or 6,102 miles and interviewed more than 20 journalists. [Since my arrival in Kazakhstan two months ago, I have conducted 30 interviews.]
After seven flights, one train journey and three road trips in the various regions, I have a better understanding of what happened in this country when residents took to the streets to protest gas prices and government corruption. Dozens of journalists were detained, imprisoned, and, in some cases, tortured. But they fared better than their countrymen: 238 who were killed by government bullets or tortured in custody.
For most of these journalists, this was not the first time they'd been dragged into a police station for covering a protest. They knew what to do, how to protect their photos, how to demand official documentation for their detention, how to request an attorney and how to insist on bureaucratic formalities that most Kazakhstan citizens are unaware of.
While many accounts of the January protests were recorded by citizens themselves—this protest was started by social media—many of the official accounts of what happened in January were documented by brave, independent journalists. These are some of the faces of those who have told me their stories.
Through my travels, especially in the regions, I've been trailed by the KNB—Kazakhstan's version of the KGB. At one point I confronted one agent who was not very good at hiding his "secret" filming of me and the journalist I was interviewing. He didn't deny what he was doing and shortly later he left the area. The journalists seemed unfazed by this blatant spying.
A couple weeks ago, the Kazakhstan government complained to the U.S. Embassy here because I had published two stories about the arrest of blogger Makhambet Abzhan. I am here as a journalist Fulbright scholar doing interviews. I'm not here under a journalist visa. Journalists here are licensed and documented by the government. I normally don't publish my research until I'm finished. But, hey, Makhambet wrote me a two-page confession from prison!
Soon I hope to introduce you to these journalists' personal stories.
It's always painful to me when a journalist admits he took money for a story. While this is highly unusual in the Western media, it happens quite often in post-Soviet countries, especially in Central Asia. The problem is arising now from a clash of cultures. While old style media is on the downward slide, a new style of blogging from amateurs is increasingly popular. These bloggers have no training as journalists. Many I've interviewed aren't interested in journalism ethics. They see no problem with taking money to support their work.
But in several notable cases, Otabek Satoriy in Uzbekistan and now Makhambet Abzhan in Kazakhstan, taking money has put these amateur journalists/bloggers in severe jeopardy. Satoriy is already serving six years in prison. And though when he was initially arrested there was a large outcry that this was a muckraking journalist who was being suppressed by the government, eventually his unethical practices caused the media to turn the other way and drop support. Now, in Makhambet Abzhan's case, a similar situation is happening.
This is where I like to point out that old adage that if something appears to be too good, it probably is. I think Abzhan wanted to believe he'd won the lottery with this proposition. Instead he garnered a jail cell. Now, in order to free himself, he has to confess to his unethical practices. As his attorney says, “This is a case of a journalist who was being unethical. But it is not a criminal case. Abzhan did not extort.”
That argument may work in court. But it won't earn him supporters in the journalism community in Kazakhstan. This morning I corresponded with an editor of one of Kazakhstan's independent media outlets. The journalist told me that his outlet probably won't cover Abzhan's case anymore.
"It looked like the authoritarian regime was trying to repress an independent journalist," the editor said. "Now it is a completely different story."
I feel sorry for Abzhan. I feel sorry for his family, especially the woman he just married a month ago but whose marriage has not been officially registered. I suppose Abzhan felt he needed to come clean about what had happened. And if the proposal came from the businessman and not Abzhan, there isn't a criminal case. At this point, I'm sure Abzhan is more concerned about facing a possible eight years in prison. He's not thinking of how to restore his image as a journalist. That will come later.
What other ethical journalists tell me is that cases such as Abzhan's make it harder for them to get the public to trust them. It makes their jobs that much harder in a place where getting people to speak out is hard enough as it is.
I hope Abzhan is released from prison. And I also hope his case might be a warning to other bloggers who take money and see nothing wrong with their actions.
July 4: American Independence Day
I've been in Kazakhstan for five days. The first journalist I contacted is Makhambet Abzhan, a freelancer and popular blogger in Nur-Sultan, the capital where my husband and I are staying for the next month. I was eager to meet Abzhan because he was one of the journalists who covered the protests in Kazakhstan in January in which more than 227 people were killed. Many journalists who covered the riots were arrested and detained. Abzhan disappeared for a week after the government accused him of igniting one of the riots.
We agreed to meet on July 5 at a popular cafe. But on Monday, July 4, I discover that Abzhan has been arrested and is sitting in a Nur-Sultan jail on suspicion of extorting the equivalent of $107,000 from a wealthy businessman not to publish damaging information about him. I call Xeniya, my translator. She, my husband, Greg, and I rush off in a cab to a court house on the other side of the city. But when we arrive we are told that the government has changed the courthouse to one on the outskirts of the city —the exact opposite of where we are. It takes us half an hour to get there.
When we arrive we learn the hearing has been delayed. Abzhan has insisted on appearing physically in court instead of virtually. Also holding up the hearing is that the government wants Abzhan's attorney to sign an agreement not to discuss the case publicly. Who ever heard of such a thing? He refuses.
I interview Abzhan's attorney, his wife of three weeks, his attorney, and his supporters. No one can believe that Abzhan would ever extort money. So far this year he has prevailed in two court cases against him.
Using the courts and charging journalists with crimes unrelated to their journalism is the most popular tactic in Kazakhstan to intimidate and silence reporters. The government tries to shame journalists into silence by charging them with pornography or tax evasion or theft—or extortion.
Abzhan's hearing is rescheduled for the next day, July 5. That hearing lasts over three hours. The outcome is that the government has decided to keep Abzhan in jail for two months while it investigates the charges against him. Except it's unclear if the government has actually formally charged Abzhan.
I update my story and go back and forth with the editor at midnight. Finally the story appears online. You can read it here.
It was a day on the Chesapeake Bay. Navbahor Imamova and her film crew from Voice of America came to Northumberland County, Virginia, population 12,000, to spend the day recording an interview with me and taping Imamova's weekly news roundup. The result is an in-depth interview that takes viewers through my home, onto my dock and to the nearby beach at Hughlett's Point, a protected beach along the Chesapeake Bay.
Imamova and I first met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in mid-March, shortly after I'd arrived as a Fulbright Scholar. We spent three hours talking that first time and then went on to engage in multiple Telegram chats. Imamova is a wealth of information. She started her journalism career in Uzbekistan, and for the past twenty years has covered Central Asia for Voice of America.
From the time I landed in Tashkent, I continued to hear from journalists and people at the U.S. Embassy that I absolutely had to talk to Imamova. And when I did, I understood why so many people inside Uzbekistan and out think so highly of her.
That first chat, we had so much to talk about. I was in Uzbekistan to interview Uzbekistani journalists and determine what were the biggest challenges. Imamova offered her expertise and connected me with many journalists. I am deeply in debt to her for her assistance. Anyone paying attention to these pages knows that I found some very disturbing patterns with State Security Services (SSS) threatening, intimidating and forcing journalists to delete stories.
Check out the interview here. Even if you just watch the film with the sound down, the video captures the beautiful landscape of coastal Virginia. Imamova and her team did an amazing job.
My quest to secure an interview with the State Security Services (SSS) in Uzbekistan is a story of the hunted becoming the hunter.
One of my favorite Soviet era paintings from the Savistky collection of avant-garde art in Nukus, Uzbekistan is the 1971 "Hunter" by N.M. Nedbaylo, a Ukrainian.
As a U.S. Fulbright Scholar researching the media in Uzbekistan, I have interviewed nearly 35 journalists, bloggers and media monitors. Nearly all of them say the No. 1 threat to reporting the truth in this country is the State Security Services (SSS). They claim the SSS, or what some call the “secret police,” routinely threaten harm to their families if they don’t delete stories and stop covering certain topics, like government corruption.
Just the idea of having to deal with the SSS elicits so much fear and trepidation that journalists self-censor and don’t even try to report stories that people here need to know. I have found journalists in Uzbekistan much more timid than other post-Soviet countries where the media laws are far more restrictive.
When I asked why this was the case, Tashanov Abdurakhmon, chairman of the Ezgulik, Uzbekistan’s human rights agency told me: “When the government becomes more a bully, the people become more slaves. When the treatment becomes more harsh and more severe, the people become more timid and more abiding of authority, like North Korea.”
One of the tenets of sound journalism is hearing what the other side has to say. It’s called being fair and balanced. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to talk with the SSS for a couple of weeks about these allegations of threats and intimidations.
But the SSS is ignoring me.
I feel like Michael Moore in his famous movie Roger & Me in which he tries to get an interview with General Motor’s Chairman Roger Smith. He follows him around the country, stakes out places Smith will be, but he can never get an interview.
My host during my 2.5 month stay in Uzbekistan is The Agency for Information and Mass Communication, a government media monitoring agency, which one would think would easily be able to help me set up an interview with the SSS, another kind of monitoring agency.
Tukhtasin Ghaybullayev is my contact there. On May 9, more than 10 days ago, I started asking him for help. Ghaybullayev finally told me I’d need to ask the U.S. Embassy to write a letter on my behalf to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When I asked the Embassy if they could write such a letter, they said they’d never been asked to write a letter verifying the identity of an independent journalist and didn’t want to start such a precedent.
I agreed. Why should the U.S. Embassy get involved with securing interviews for journalists? I don’t work for the U.S. government. I sent Ghaybullayev a copy of my international press credentials and insisted that these should be good enough. But he wouldn’t budge.
Then I turned to Komil Allamjonov, head of Public Foundation for Support and Development of the National Mass Media, and asked if he could help me.
“No one has actually asked me before to help them get an interview with the secret service,” Allamjonov said. “It’s a secret service. It’s name is 'secret service' you know,” he said laughing. "What they do is secret."
Allamjonov said my contact at The Agency should contact the SSS’s press agent. But Ghaybullayev insisted he had no way to contact anyone at the SSS.
I found this to be incredulous, particularly since The Agency had made a big deal to me that the government had installed press agents at all government organizations, and those agents were ordered to respond to requests within 24 hours. Surely they would know how to make contact. But my texts to Ghaybullayev went unanswered.
So I thought maybe I could contact the SSS directly. I asked journalists who had frequently been contacted by the SSS if they could reach out and ask how I could secure an interview.
“Why do you want to interview them?” One journalist after another asked. They all thought my request unusual. A few said they sent notes to people at the SSS, but no one heard back. One journalist told me I needed to write an article that would draw the SSS’s attention.
So that’s what I’m doing. When I wrote an article about the SSS for Qalampir, the editor told me he couldn’t print a story that mentioned the SSS. So maybe the fact that I’ve been writing SSS many times in this piece will get their attention.
One person jokingly told me the SSS doesn’t come out during the day. “They are like vampires,” he said. “They don’t like the light. They thrive in the dark.”
Despite his admonition, he did give me a phone number that he found listed online for the SSS (see above photo, translated by Google Translate.) “No one ever answers,” he warned.
I dialed the number. After two rings, a recording picked up. It was of a man’s voice telling me in English that the person couldn’t come to the phone and to call back later. I tried several times, over several different days. It was always the same recording. But why was it in English since I was dialing an Uzbekistan number from an Uzbekistan number?
So back to The Agency. This time I just showed up at their offices. Maybe Ghaybullayev would stop ignoring me if I planted myself and refused to leave. You know, something like a sit-in protest.
After several minutes of sitting in the Agency offices, Ghaybullayev showed up with another Agency official who spoke English and could translate. (Why would the Agency pair me with a guy who couldn’t speak English?) Ghaybullayev stuck to his line. The Embassy had to write a letter. That was the only way.
Finally, when he saw I wasn’t going to leave, he suggested I write my own letter. And so I did. I emailed that letter to Norov Vladimir Imamovich, Uzbekistan’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. Still no word.
Then yesterday I had an interview with the head of the journalists union, Olimjon Usarov. He asked me why I hadn’t interviewed the SSS since so many of my findings involved that government agency. I detailed my quest and how I’d been asking for the interview for nearly two weeks. Usarov said he would try to help me.
I’m still waiting. Hello Mr. SSS, are you listening?
Meet Katerina Andreeva, one of the bravest journalists in all of the post-Soviet autocracies. Currently, Andreeva and her colleague, videographer Daria Chultsova, are serving the final six months of a two-year sentence in a prison colony for live-streaming a protest in Minsk in November of 2020. Because of the ludicrous nature of the charges and the "investigation," Andreeva defiantly asked the judge after hearing the verdict: “Why didn’t you give us 25 years?”
But last month, the Belarusian government handed down another charge against Andreeva. This time the charge is for treason and she now faces a prison sentence of 7 to 15 years. It's believed these charges are in relation to stories she reported about Belarusian soldiers for hire who fought in Donbas in Ukraine.
The KGB conducted the investigation into these mysterious treason charges, Andreeva's husband, journalist Igor Ilyash, told me. He said the court will be closed and lawyers are not even allowed to tell him or Andreeva's family members the circumstances surrounding the charges. He's not even sure when the court will hear the case.
I met Andreeva in the summer of 2018 while working on a story about retaliations against journalists in Belarus. The story was later published in the Washington Post. Then 24, Andreeva had already been detained twice by the police. Once she was strip-searched and falsely accused of hiding a camera in a crevice of her body. She showed me the stories about the Belarusian soldiers fighting in Donbas. Andreeva started reporting these stories back in 2017. So it seems strange that only now the government is coming after her for these reports. Or is it to send a message to other reporters not to report about Belarus's involvement in Russian's war in Ukraine?
“The most dangerous thing you can do in Belarus is investigative reporting,” Andreeva told me then. But she refused to back down. Even as we spoke, a KGB officer was sitting across from us at a restaurant. His table spare, the guy wasn't even trying to hide the fact he was spying on us. Andreeva said he'd been following us since we left her apartment. She was used to such harassment by then. "I'm ready to go to prison if I have to," she told me.
After our hours-long conversation, I told my husband that the Belarusian government would likely try to quash such defiance and determination.
I've been thinking of Andreeva a lot these days. I've spent the last seven weeks in Uzbekistan interviewing journalists and bloggers here. In contrast to Belarus which has 19 journalists in prison, there are no journalists in prison here. But the fear and intimidation expressed by Uzbekistani journalists is palpable. Most are afraid to say anything that might draw attention to themselves. A few brave ones are defiant and tired of self-censoring. Most simply comply with government censors and then lie about it to the public—making up stories for why their website was off line for days or why their coverage of the war in Ukraine has suddenly gone from neutral to nothing but Russian propaganda.
When I complain about such cowardice, I'm told that I must understand that these journalists have families and these editors have employees and they are just trying to protect them. But why even be a journalist if you don't have the stomach to face intimidation and harassment?
When journalists excuse other journalists' passivity here, I think of Andreeva, who at 28 is facing 15 years in prison. If that happens, her youth and any chance of a family will be taken from her. I think of the other 18 journalists in prison in Belarus, the 24 journalists in prison in Russia, the 26 journalists in prison in Turkey and the three journalists who are in prison in Azerbaijan.
The first rule of journalism is: Question authority. Unfortunately, not much of that is happening in Uzbekistan.
Dilfuza Ibodova runs a news website in Bukhara.
I am in Bukhara, sitting on a rooftop overlooking an amazing city of turquoise and lapis-colored madrassas and mausoleums. The architecture along the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan is amazing. And so are the stories.
I've now conducted 38 interviews in Uzbekistan since arriving six weeks ago. These are hours-long conversations in which journalists and bloggers and sometimes human rights advocates detail specific threats and intimidations they and others have experienced.
Just last week in Tashkent, Anora Sodikova from Rost 24 (photo left) announced she had to delete a video and an article about an Uzbekistan businessman who appeared in the Panama Papers, the huge database showing owners of offshore accounts. A "very powerful person" contacted a colleague of hers and told him if Anora wanted a "quiet life" she'd have to take down the article and video she posted on her website. Fearing for her family, Anora took down the report. But when she refused to take down her Facebook post that said she was in danger, a "sniper blogger" started a smear campaign about her. Anora told me the identity of this "very powerful person" but because she fears he will follow through on his threats I cannot tell you. That's the way it is in Uzbekistan. Everyone knows, but no one can say out loud.
Journalists and bloggers are also afraid in the regions. I interviewed several journalists last week in Samarkand. A few of them were defiant and said they didn't care if officials threatened them. Others hemmed and hawed about whether I could tell their story on the record—and in the end they said yes.
I've started a growing list of the brave journalists I've met here.
At the top of that list is Dilfuza Ibodova, who runs the media website tezkor-yangiliklar.uz/. I was connected to Dilfuza through Tashanov Abdurakhmon, President of Ezgulik, Uzbekistan's official human rights agency. Tashanov called Dilfuza "an active and brave blogger." I didn't know much about her when we first met. (Sometimes it's hard to find information in English on news sites in this country.)
For our first interview, Dilfuza and I met at the famous Lyabi House next to the giant fountains in Bukhara this week. Dilfuza brought her teenage daughter as a translator. Her daughter is studying English at the university. The poor girl struggled to keep up with the complex conversation. Even professional translators have problems translating such detailed conversations. Soon all three of us were typing furiously on our phones on Google translate.
What was confusing to me is that Dilfuza said the SSS (or SNB or DXX or KGB, there are so many acronyms for the state security services here) didn't contact her. No one ever told her what to write, and she wrote about corruption of officials all the time. Judicial corruption and crime was in fact just about all she wrote. We continued this back and forth for awhile. She said she didn't feel fear and she felt she could write about anything she wanted as long as she provided documentation, also known as "proofs" here.
Finally I asked Dilfuza: "Why is it that all these other journalists and bloggers are having trouble with the SSS and you are not?"
Then she typed on her phone and held up the translation to me: "They don't bother me because they killed my brother in 2015."
Stay-tuned. I'll soon detail more about this brave woman's story and those of others like her.
Bahodirxon Eliboyev, a journalist-turn-blogger, and me in a ceramics factory in the Fergana Region of Uzbekistan.
I am in Fergana, and I am being tracked. The State Security Services (SSS) contacts journalists after I have met with them. The SSS calls the hotel where I am staying several times a day and asks: Where has she gone? Who is she meeting with? What is the name of her translator? Other guests have even commented to me about these phone conversations.
My interview subjects tell me they feel paranoid. Who informed on them? I tick through a small list of people who knew about my interviews. Who would inform on me? I sense a growing paranoia within me. It’s like I’m living in a Soviet time warp—or as one journalist told me—the Soviet Union 2.0.
It’s not that I’m not used to such monitoring. Uzbekistan is the tenth post-Soviet country I’ve visited. But in places like Belarus, the KGB were more obvious. They sat across from me in restaurants, their tables spare and stared at me and whomever I was interviewing. Or they openly filmed me at public protests. I’m sure there’s a fat file in Minsk about me. Journalists in former Soviet states often know those who follow them. The security services there make it a point to be seen. Here the security forces’ secrecy feels much more menacing.
“Pressure from the security services has only gotten worse over time,” explains Bahodirxon Eliboyev, a journalist turned blogger in Rishtan. Government spying and monitoring has had a chilling effect on both journalists and citizens, he said. His observations echo what journalists in Tashkent have told me.
“Our journalism now is getting very dangerous,” Eliboyev said. “The security services can buy some journalists. If the authorities order, journalists write everything that officials want. That’s not journalism. That’s propaganda. Censorship is now in our minds and our hearts.”
Unlike most journalists I’ve met in Uzbekistan, Eliboyev speaks openly about pressure journalists face. But he says normal citizens increasingly are afraid to speak out by name about wrongdoings they witness.
“Citizens are afraid to talk to journalists because they can lose their jobs,” he said. “We have to teach them not to be afraid.’’ He says that filing stories with anonymous sources doesn’t carry the same authority as quoting people by name. “If I use anonymous names to protect them then it’s not developing journalism here. And I want to develop my country.”
Eliboyev is controversial. He was fired from his first two jobs as a reporter after graduating with a journalism degree from Tashkent University. He then started two publications in Tashkent, but each time the prosecutor shut him down, he said. So he turned to human rights activism and blogging.
On July 24, 2018, Eliboyev said he wrote a post on his blog wishing President Mirziyoyev a happy birthday and asking him not to forget the millions of Uzbek migrant workers who live in Russia and other countries because they can’t make a living in their home country.
That afternoon four SSS officers pounded on the door of his garage apartment where he was napping.
“When they saw I was living out of a garage, they asked; ‘Don’t you have a home?’ ”
He said he told them: “I can’t work as a journalist. So where can I live? I can’t earn money at the one thing I’m good at.”
They warned him he would go to jail if he kept writing about forbidden topics.
He said he told them: “I can write whatever I want because your jail is like my garage. But your jail is more comfortable because I don’t need to find bread. You bring me bread. Your jail is for me freedom.”
Eliboyev continues to blog about controversial topics. Just last week he says he was visited by the head of the terrorism police and told to delete a post or face a five-day detention and a 1.5 million sum fine. He deleted the post.
Two hours after we met, Eliboyev sent me a text. He’d just gotten off the phone with the SSS. They wanted to know what he told me, he said.
“Censorship is inside of themselves,” he says.
But self-censorship is real if a media outlet doesn’t want to lose licenses for crossing unknown red lines. At Ruxsor TV, near Fergana city, singer Nuriddin Asqarov says he pumped all his money into the television venture. I asked how the station had handled coverage of the Ukraine war. The general manager, Ibrohim Halimbekov, said the station is only licensed to produce 10 percent news. When I pressed further, I sensed employees in the room getting nervous. “We just cover life,” explained Halimbekov. “We do short reports on what is going on in the world. But we can’t go into detail. We are an entertainment station. We will lose our license.”
Fear has forced some bloggers out of business. I met with former blogger Otabek Nuritdinov in his hometown Asaka in the Andijan region. In January 2020, Nuritdinov was detained for 15 days and fined over $1400 on charges of “slander, insult and disorderly conduct.” As Nuritdinov recounted these events, it was hard to imagine the soft-spoken man dressed in a blazer insulting anyone. After he was released, Nuritdinov faced more threats of arrest. In response, he refused to leave his house for six months. Shortly afterward he stopped blogging.
At first Nuritdinov was hesitant to meet with me and to speak on the record. He doesn’t want any further problems with the government, he said. I went to Andijan and toured Nuritdinov’s tree nursery and, at his insistence, planted tree seedlings. After our three-hour interview, Nuritdinov agreed to let me use his name. But he asked me to be sure to mention his new venture of growing trees to produce clean air. Though he was still nervous when we parted, Nuritdinov posted pictures of us on his social media accounts. Everyone I met did this, even those who were nervous about being questioned by the SSS.
I’m told that bloggers and journalists do this because there’s some cache in meeting with an American journalist. But I suspect there’s also an element of protection, that if they publicly acknowledge such interviews then they can’t be accused of meeting in secret.
She said she leads a clean life, doesn’t smoke or drink to eliminate any chance such vices can be used against her. Most importantly, she backs up her stories with documents, court papers and audio recordings. And she knows where the red lines are: she refrains from writing about the president or his family, religion, LGBT issues and private relationships between two people.
But even her precautions didn’t protect her from being questioned in 2016 by the SSS about why she was writing under pseudonyms in Ozodlik and the BBC.
Then in 2020, Madrakhimov was shooting a video at a street market when a representative of the local governor grabbed her and took her to the police. She was detained for two hours while the police grilled her about why she was shooting the video. Finally, the governor called and told police that she was a journalist and to let her go.
During last year’s presidential elections, she was asked not to report her observations until after the election, but she refused and posted stories anyway.
After our interview, Madrakhimov texted me that the SSS had called her and asked what she was doing in Rishtan. She admitted she had met with me. (She also posted a picture of us on her Facebook account.) If they contact her again, she said, she will write about it in detail on Facebook.
What troubles me about the SSS’s surveillance of me, is that my research of challenges faced by Uzbekistan journalists has been approved by the government. My official host is the Agency for Mass Media and Communication. So why did the security services in Fergana covertly track me? Whatever its goal, I doubt it was to make me feel what journalists and bloggers say they encounter every day—fear-induced self-censorship, suspicion of colleagues, and paranoia for their safety. Even I am not telling you everything.
We arrive in Tashkent at 2 a.m. both bleary-eyed and wired. The airport looks like so many other post-Soviet airports we have flown into. Our six bags in tow, we are greeted at the exit by the same sorts of taxi drivers we’ve encountered outside countless train stations and airports throughout Eastern Europe, yelling as we pass, eager to charge twice or even five times the normal price of a fare to our hotel. But we are not your average Americans, who if they travel outside North America at all, go to places like London, Paris or Rome.
Uzbekistan is our tenth post-Soviet country. My husband and I are here as part of a Fulbright grant from the U.S. State Department. My government is underwriting my research of independent media in post-Soviet countries, where freedom of the press is in its infancy in some countries and non-existent in others. I’m here to see where Uzbekistan falls on that spectrum.
This posting follows nearly two years of my husband and I living in Ukraine, where I taught investigative reporting at various universities, and crisscrossed the former Soviet Union interviewing investigative reporters about the challenges they face to report the truth. Some of those journalists are now reporting from the war in Ukraine, others are in prisons in Belarus, and a few remain in hiding in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Now in Tashkent, my husband and I watch news of the fighting in Ukraine. Kyiv is always on our minds. My husband has family in Ukraine and in Belarus, which has joined in the war. I keep track of my former students in Ukraine, and we both correspond with former neighbors, friends and family who sleep in bomb shelters and spend their days cooking for soldiers or dodging bullets to deliver medical supplies.
There’s so much about Tashkent that reminds me of Kyiv— the Soviet architecture, the broad streets and underground passages, the mixture of ethnic groups, the signs in Russian and English and the friendly people.
I knew from earlier research that the Lenin statues had been torn down in Tashkent and that Uzbekistan’s president is pushing for modernization. The city is clean and well maintained. I love all the trees. But I am stunned when I stumble upon a statue of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in front of a colorful Soviet mosaic on Shevchenko Street. In nearby Zulfiya Park, there is a statue of the Belarusian poet Yakub Kolas who only lived in Tashkent for three years. I learn that his image replaced that of the Uzbek poet and journalist Zulfiya for whom the park was named. Why take down a statue of a woman when so many countries are struggling to find women in history to honor? Why are Ukrainian and Belarusian poets honored in Tashkent? I wonder.
“This is still an old Soviet town,” a local reporter explains.
I hear her voice in my head as we encounter the same bureaucratic systems here that we experienced in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others. The same systems that require lots of forms, registrations, stamps and standing in lines talking to people behind glass. The same demands for gratuities, like the mysterious charges a woman at the post office solicits of me and my husband without explanation but asks of no one else in line.
Uzbeks, we are told, are known for being calm. They do seem calm. But last Sunday, my husband and I watched two men get out of their cars and punch each other because one man hadn’t sped through the intersection fast enough. Another guy stopped his car in the middle of the intersection and broke up the fight.
In general, I find people in Tashkent polite and helpful. Sometimes these exchanges can be comical. Like the barista at a coffee shop who asked if I wanted “koritsa” with my cappuccino.
“You’re asking me if I want a chicken with my coffee?”
He smiled and nodded. Then he held up a silver canister to my nose.
“Oh, cinnamon,” I said. “Yes, that’s nice.”
Consulting Google translator, I learned that chicken is pronounced “kyritsa” and cinnamon is “koritsa.” Good to know. Now I fear I might accidentally ask for a pound of cinnamon at the grocery store.
There are other surprises. Because of all the Russian and Belarusian immigrants who have fled here because of sanctions, finding an apartment was especially difficult. We had to pay 30 percent more for rent than initially advertised. Food in the grocery stores is three times more expensive than when I was in Ukraine. On average, I’m spending a little more than $100 a week in grocery stores and in the states I spent $200 a week on food. Restaurants are expensive too. While tasty plov is cheap and plentiful, restaurants like Thai, Italian, Korean and other ethnic foods, charge western prices. Cell phone coverage and taxis are cheap in Tashkent, but home goods are outrageously expensive. I tried to buy a printer, which in the states usually costs about $35 to $50. Here, the cheapest printer I found was $300. The same for other items like bedsheets and coffee grinders, both about double the average price in the states.
Since I don’t speak Uzbek, I am delighted to see that many people speak Russian. There are far more fair-haired Europeans here than I expected. Yet I still stand out. When I try to communicate in my bumbling Russian, more times than not the waiter or store employee or the guy standing in line in front of me responds in excellent English.
“Where are you from?” they always ask. When I say America, they marvel and tell me that it’s their dream to go there some day. I’ve heard this in so many countries and I am always curious what idyllic life they imagine we live in America. I always tried to rectify my Ukrainian students of this notion. America, I told them, is the land of 60-hour work weeks, two-week vacations, and health care premiums that costs more your monthly car payment.
But even with the high cost of life in America, I’m grateful that my country was founded on the principle of freedom of speech. Our media has been practicing independently for centuries. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned a few things. We’ve developed laws to protect journalists and carved out a set of ethics to make it clear when there is a conflict of interest.
That’s why a fledging media in a country like yours is of interest to me.
Since I arrived here three weeks ago, I’ve been talking to journalists at several independent media sites. Next week, I’ll be in Fergana to interview journalists there. Eventually I hope to travel to most of the major cities in Uzbekistan. I’ll be reporting my findings here. So, stay tuned.
Forever a Nomad
I'm a Fulbright Scholar with the U.S. State Department in post-Soviet Central Asia. My previous Fulbright was in Ukraine. I report on journalists from post-Soviet states who are retaliated for reporting the truth.