Uzbekistan: Welcome to digital tyranny

Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications

Since the bloody repression of protests in Andijan in 2005, the autocratic regime of Islam Karimov has done everything in its power to extend to the internet the absolute power that it wields over traditional media. The government has systematically established institutional structures, legislative tools and advanced technology to guard against any threat from online content. The Expert Commission currently heads this system of control and censorship.

Blocking experts

Created by the government in August 2011, the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communication  is the top agency in charge of web regulation. The commission is tightly controlled by the council of ministers, to which the commission must file quarterly reports. Internal workings of the commission are opaque. This non-transparency extends to procedures for recruiting members.

The commission’s principal task is evaluation of online publications to determine their possible “destructive and negative informational-psychological influence on the public consciousness of citizens;” whether they are intended to “destabilize the public and political situation;” and whether they violate Uzbek law. The commission must also decide if content meets a requirement to “maintain and ensure continuity of national and cultural traditions and heritage.” In carrying out these tasks, commission experts can open their own investigations or assign other agencies that specialize in control of online content.

Among the agencies available for consultation is the State Committee for Communication, Informatization and Telecommunication Technologies, which succeeded the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information. The new committee also is under the complete control of the executive branch and is required to report regularly to the Council of Ministers. The council chooses the members of the Collegium, an internal agency in charge of planning and carrying out the committee’s activities, as well as the appointment of its officials.

However, the committee’s director and deputy director are appointed by the chief of state himself. These two officials are in charge of the Collegium and are also members of the executive board of Uztelecom, the country’s main internet service provider, 51 per cent owned by the government.

Within the Committee, the Centre for the Monitoring of the Mass Communications Sphere specializes in analysis of online content, while the Computerization and Information Technologies Development Centre is responsible for the .uz internet country code and associated domains. Regulations on registration, usage and assignment are extremely strict.

In this context, the role of internet service providers is extremely sensitive. As the last link in the chain, they are subject to tight control by the Committee, and required to block all prohibited content. The 1999 telecommunications law authorizes license suspension or prohibition to those unable to prevent the dissemination of illegal content. Pressure on these technological middlemen frequently pushes them to exercise preventive censorship.

Service providers as whole are required to prevent access to prohibited sites or content, but site-blocking is carried out mainly at the network level at Uztelecom, which has the monopoly on internet access nationwide. A 2011 amendment to the telecommunications law effectively requires private service providers to go through Uztelekom for internet access. This monopoly, which has been strengthened considerably in recent years, greatly facilitates internet control.

Social media made in Tashkent

A 2007 amendment to the 1997 media law places news sites in the same category as other kinds of media. Under the amendment, these sites answer to the same standards applied to all media. Despite the absence of a clear definition of news site, the amendment requires those seeking registration for such a site (indispensable for legal existence), to go through a registration procedure similar to that required of other media. The procedure is arbitrary, and involves a content examination as a condition of accreditation.

Blogs and news sites are also subject to more general standards such as those laid out in Articles 239, 140 and 158 of the criminal code. These authorize severe penalties for defamation and insults, especially those directed at the president. This is the law which in the past led, for many bloggers, to prison sentences or fines of 100 to 500 times Uzbekistan’s minimum wage.  The laws also authorize sentences of two to three years at hard labor,  as well as prison sentences of up to six years.

Decree 216, adopted in 2004, specifies that internet service providers and operators are prohibited from disseminating content that calls for violent overthrow of constitutional order, for war and violence, that includes pornography, or that damages human dignity. Interpretations under the law are highly subjective.

Presently, the majority of independent sites that provide news, reflect political opposition and defend human rights are censored. Other sites are hit by temporary blocking, especially at times of major social and political events.

The Facebook, Odnoklassniki, Twitter and LiveJournal social networks, as well as the YouTube video platform, are also targeted by cyber-attacks that affect an entire site or certain pages. To restrain social media’s growing popularity, Uzbek authorities have tried to promote domestic alternatives, including ld.uz (social network), Fikr.uz (blog platform), Utube.Uz (a sort of Uzbek YouTube). Most of these are designed for use only by Uzbekistan residents.

Leading-edge censorship

Uzbek agencies have steadily expanded their store of up-to-date surveillance and censorship technology, thanks not only to aid from partner countries, but to western and Chinese businesses. Uztelecom uses equipment from ZTE, a Chinese firm. In 2003, ZTE opened an office in Uzbekistan, where it has become the country’s main supplier of modems, routers and mobile telephones. Notably, Uzbekistan in 2006 also acquired the SORM Russian large-scale surveillance system (lien fiche). The government requires all internet service providers and all telephone companies to install the system and to use it, at their own expense.

Article 27 of the constitution protects the privacy of communications and conversations, but no law guarantees protection of personal data. Consequently, intercepts can be used against anyone, and be accepted as evidence in court.

Access to VPNs is hampered ever more frequently. During the second half of 2012, nearly all proxies were blocked, and Psiphon 3 was made unusable. The TOR network remains accessible, but the torproject.com site, where web users can download the software, is blocked.

Precision-aimed operations

Targets of government censorship include independent and opposition news sites, as well as foreign sites, such as Fergananews.com, Uznews.net, UzMetronome.com, Centrasia.ru, EurasiaNet.org, NewEurasia.net, Harakat.net, Mediauz.ucoz.ru, Registan.net, and Deutsche Welle. Uzbek-language services of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, and of Voice of America and the BBC are also censored. They do not even appear in the www.uz.domestic search engine

The Uzbek government has shown its readiness at any time to launch targeted or massive campaigns to lock out online content. On 9 August 2011, on the eve of the opening of the “Internet Festival” of the UZ domain, marking the 20th anniversary of national independence, more than 20 major sites, notably foreign news portals such as the New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Lenta.ru were blocked. Also included in the blackout were the Google search engine, the Reporters Without Borders site, and addresses such as sovsport.ru (dedicated to sports news).

When authorities are unable to invoke criminal laws against defaming or insulting the president, they do not hesitate to fabricate cases designed to trap independent news providers. Salijon Abdurakhmanov, an independent journalist in the Karakalpakstan, region was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2008 on a charge of drug trafficking. The sentence in fact was aimed at retaliating for his online reporting of the grave consequences of the Aral Sea ecological disaster. Prison conditions have caused severe effects on the health of the 63-year-old journalist, who suffers from a stomach ulcer.

More recently, a contributor to Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,  has spent more than six months in prison in ghastly conditions, though he is 75 years old and in declining health. Known for his reporting on corruption and on injustice in his regional government, he has been targeted by a criminal case clearly manufactured to silence him. Arrested on 22 May 2013 and sentenced in August to five years in prison on charges of fraud and extortion, he was finally freed at year’s end.