Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.
Freedom of Speech: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.
On August 9 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, local authorities arrested Uzbekistani journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev at the request of the Uzbekistan government. Abdullayev was charged under Articles 158 (Offense against the President) and 159 (Attempt to Overthrow the Constitutional Order) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code. The charges stemmed from authorities’ accusation Abdullayev was writing under the pen name “Qora Mergan,” (Black Sniper), an author that publishes allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan government officials, which Abdullayev denied. On August 22, Kyrgyz officials forcibly repatriated Abdullayev to Uzbekistan. He was released after signing a nondisclosure agreement, and after several weeks authorities dropped the charges.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation, and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny some foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s accreditation request. Others, such as BBC, Voice of America, and Eurasianet, were accredited.
In January the government’s Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media began operating. The main purpose of the Public Fund is to help media outlets develop and maintain equal rights in the media market and to promote the rights of journalists and bloggers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, print newspapers and magazines could not be published for several months. In their place was increased reporting from popular online media outlets, such as Kun.uz and Daryo.uz, as well as through channels on the social messaging app Telegram.
On November 20, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) sent warning letters to leading news websites Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, and Podrobno.uz, for questioning the legitimacy of official COVID-19 statistics reported by the Ministry of Health. The letter from AIMC noted: “the publication of information based on unverified data and the attitude expressed in this regard led to the formation of the wrong opinion among the public.” AIMC’s letter warned that “publication of such unverified information in the future may lead to serious legal consequences.” Subsequently, AIMC Director-General Asadjon Khodjayev accused several media outlets such as Kun.uz, Daryo.uz, and Gazeta.uz on November 26 of bias and again threatened “serious legal consequences.”
On December 29, President Mirziyoyev supported media freedom in his annual address to parliament, saying, “It should be especially noted that the mass media, along with objective coverage of the large-scale changes taking place in our country, draw the attention of government agencies and the public to the urgent problems on the ground and encourage leaders at all levels to solve these problems. Today they are increasingly becoming the ‘fourth power.’”
The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.”
The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.
Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.
A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. The government-run Ozbekistan is a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English.
Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to increased arrest, harassment, and intimidation.
Even before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, some journalists reported a “negative trend” in terms of media freedom, citing daily reports of harassment of journalists and bloggers. Some journalists said they believed the security services used the pandemic as a way to remind media that “they are still in charge,” despite the president’s public claims that journalists and bloggers are a vital part of the country’s reform process.
In April authorities detained Sharifa Madrahimova, a correspondent of Ma’rifat newspaper, after she filmed a documentary video in local bazaars to report on price gouging on basic food items during the COVID-19 quarantine.
In May, following the collapse of a dam in Sardoba that displaced hundreds of villagers, two journalists at a popular sports channel were fired after publicly criticizing how a state-run news channel covered the story. Bobur Akmalov (editor) and Jamoliddin Babajanov (producer), at “Sport,” made their remarks during a radio program broadcast on May 18.
On July 26, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned the chief editors from three Karakalpakstan news websites after printing unconfirmed reports about the death of Karakalpakstan parliament’s chairman, Senator Musa Yerniyazov, who tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, the Ministry of Interior summoned a blogger in Karakalpakstan who posted the same story. The three online outlets, as well as the blogger, all later retracted their reports about the senator’s death. A Tashkent-based website also published the news, only to claim later that “this unconfirmed information was published as a result of hacking.” Bloggers and journalists in Karakalpakstan reported that the dissemination of information in the region in general was “severely restricted” and the local authorities were covering up the real number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
On August 22, police arrested a popular vlogger who frequently called for changes in the local leadership in Fergana (where the governor is widely seen as corrupt). Authorities detained Dadakhon Haydarov, a 22-year-old from Sokh District of the Fergana Region and who had a large YouTube following, and detained him for 10 days. According to his father, officials took Haydarov from his parent’s home and transferred him by helicopter to Fergana City.
In May unknown assailants attacked the cameraman accompanying a journalist from the internet publication “Effect Uz” while investigating a story in the Fergana Region. The journalist told media that “unknown persons sprayed a gas canister into the (camera) operator’s eyes and broke the car windows. In addition, the attackers stole a video camera, which is the property of the publication.” The cameraman suffered injuries from the attack.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications such as Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published some critical stories on issues such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who were still on a “black list” that limited their ability to publish elsewhere.
In 2019 the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, which had been blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.
There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.
Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without legal reprisal.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens began to complain about the government’s response in online social forums, the government restricted access to social media, Facebook in particular, with frequent service interruptions. Users noted that while the government did not block the site, it became extremely difficult to load pages and view content. Users noted improvement of Facebook functionality only in August, once the nationwide quarantine was lifted. The media law defines websites as media outlets, requiring them to register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. The government blocked the website of Forum 18, a human rights news site.
Several active online forums allowed registered users to post comments and read discussions on a range of social problems. To become a registered user in these forums, individuals must provide personally identifiable information. It was not clear whether the government attempted to collect this information, although provisions of the law require internet cafe proprietors to log customers’ browser history.
In March the government amended the criminal code to include prohibitions against spreading “false” information regarding COVID-19. On March 31, Dr. Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in Karakalpakstan Region, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any coronavirus cases in Karakalpakstan. Five officials then came to the hospital to question Sultonov, known for publicly discussing freedom of religion and belief on his social media pages. The officials asked Sultonov if he had any religious texts on his person. He said he had Muslim texts on his computer, so officials confiscated it. Authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly spreading false information on lockdown measures under the new criminal code. On November 23, the court of the Ellikalansky District of Karakalpakstan sentenced him to 14 months’ of restrictions on his freedom of movement, including time served since March, for the “Illegal Manufacturing, Storage, Importation, or Distribution of Materials of Religious Content” as well as for “Distribution of Information about the Dissemination of Quarantine and Other Hazardous Infections.”
A decree requires all websites seeking the “.uz” domain to register with the government’s Agency for Press and Information. The decree generally affected only government-owned or government-controlled websites. Opposition websites and those operated by international NGOs or media outlets tended to have domain names registered outside the country.
The government implemented procedures for restricting access to websites that include “banned information.” Based on these regulations, a website or blog could be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography, or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order.
The government continued to limit academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities occasionally required department-head approval for university lectures, and university professors generally practiced self-censorship.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly. While the government restricted this right, it sometimes allowed individuals to exercise this freedom without reprisal.
On March 20, an Andijan regional court sentenced Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov to 15 days’ detention for conducting a nikah ritual (an unregistered religious marriage ceremony). Although performing nikah is not itself illegal, Bobojonov was sentenced under Article 201 of the administrative code, “violation of the procedure for organizing, holding meetings, rallies, street processions, or demonstrations.” After the intervention of Bobjonov’s lawyer, human rights activists, and local bloggers, the court reduced his sentence to five days.
Authorities have the right to suspend or prohibit rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. Although the law requires demonstrators to obtain permits, most demonstrators proceeded without filing permit applications. In some incidents, authorities subjected citizens to large fines, threats, arbitrary detention, or abuse for violating procedures for organizing meetings, rallies, and demonstrations or for facilitating unsanctioned events by providing space, other facilities, or materials. Organizers of “mass events” with the potential for more than 100 participants must sign agreements with the Ministry of Interior for the provision of security prior to advertising or holding such an event. Officials broadly applied this regulation, including to private corporate functions.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. Authorities sought to control NGO activity, internationally funded NGOs, and unregulated Islamic and minority religious groups. The operating environment for independent civil society, in particular human rights defenders, remained restrictive, although several activists reported improved cooperation with government officials. Several independent NGOs continued to face barriers to registering locally due to earlier court orders against them or other objections by officials.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the registration of NGOs, requires NGOs to obtain the ministry’s approval to hold large meetings with nonmembers, including foreigners; to seek the ministry’s clearance on any event where materials are to be distributed; and to notify the ministry in writing of the content and scope of the events in question.
The government has a legal framework for public oversight of the activities of government bodies and government officials. In accordance with the law, citizens, citizens’ self-government bodies, noncommercial organizations, and mass media have the right to exercise oversight regarding activities of government bodies and officials.
There are legal restrictions on the types of groups that may be formed. The law requires that organizations with an operating budget and funds register formally with the government. The law allows for a six-month grace period for new organizations to operate while awaiting registration from the Ministry of Justice, during which time the government officially classifies them as “initiative groups.” Several NGOs continued to function as initiative groups for periods longer than six months.
In 2018 the government issued a number of regulations that affected NGO activity. The Ministry of Justice no longer requires NGOs to obtain approval in order to conduct events, but they still need to notify the ministry of plans to conduct public programs. The minimum period for informing the ministry of planned activities is 10 days before the start of an event without the participation of foreign citizens, and 20 days before the start of event with the participation of foreign citizens. The ministry provides NGOs with written notice only in cases of refusal to conduct the event. The law also requires that NGOs file annual reports to the government. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice adopted the Regulation on Monitoring and Studying Activities of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, which establishes a separate procedure on monitoring and studying NGOs’ activities.
The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs.
Due to the burdensome challenges registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations have not received registration from the government. As a result, civil society remains stifled and the level of regulations prevents organizations from gaining a footprint in the country.
On January 18, shortly after Ezgulik assisted blogger and activist Nafosat Olloshkurova as she fled the country, authorities seized the registration certificate, charter, computers, and other documents of the Ezgulik branch office in the Jizzakh Region. According to Ezgulik, prosecutors stated they had a warrant to conduct the search but did not produce it when asked. The next day the prosecutor’s office filed a corruption case against the head of the branch office, Zifa Umrzakova. In June the Criminal Court of Jizzakh sentenced her to two years of “restricted movement.” The case was pending appeal, with a hearing scheduled for January 11, 2021.
The administrative liability code imposes large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity as well as for “involving others” in “illegal NGOs.” The law does not specify whether the term refers to NGOs suspended or closed by the government or merely NGOs not officially registered. The administrative code also imposes penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities the government did not approve in advance.
Registered NGOs are allowed to receive grants from domestic and foreign donors. Receiving organizations must notify the Ministry of Justice of their grants and present a plan of activities to the ministry that details how the NGO would allocate the funds. If the ministry approves, no other government approvals are required. The ministry requires yearly financial reports from NGOs.
Parliament’s Public Fund for the Support of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, and Other Civil Society Institutions continued to conduct grant competitions to implement primarily socioeconomic projects. Some civil society organizations criticized the fund for primarily supporting government-organized NGOs. The law criminalizes membership in organizations the government broadly deemed “extremist.”
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens throughout the country to have a domicile registration stamp (formerly known as propiska) in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Previously, individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country.
On May 13, the president signed an amended law governing residence registration in Tashkent and specifically the list of categories of citizens “subject to permanent registration in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region.” The new law enables citizens to register at the addresses of their relatives “in a direct line” along first and second degrees of kinship, and canceled the requirement that a couple must live together for one year after marriage in order to retain their residence permit. A new stipulation was introduced that specialists (with some exceptions) who have been working continuously for five years or more in government bodies and organizations located in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region, together with their family members, also have the right to permanent registration. Effective September 1, residents from other regions visiting Tashkent or Tashkent Region may stay for up to 15 days without filing for temporary registration with the police, extended from 10 days.
The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.
Foreign Travel: In 2019 the government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.
On December 9, the government announced it had repatriated 98 Uzbekistani women and children from Syria, where they had “suffered bitter consideration due to the mistakes of spouses or fathers.” The government pledged to assist them and provide necessary support for their return to society.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. According to a 2018 UNHCR publication, “Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia and the CIS that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, there is no national legislation to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. Rather, asylum seekers are dealt with according to migration legislation.” There were no known cases of refoulement during the year.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
During the year, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the UNHCR mandate. UNHCR–through its regional offices, as it does not have an office in-country–undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most refugees lost access to their livelihoods, and in May, UNHCR provided a one-time financial assistance to all refugees in the country.
In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff provides counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.
In the past some refugees from Tajikistan were officially stateless or faced the possibility of becoming officially stateless, as many carried only old Soviet passports rather than Tajikistan or Uzbekistan passports. Children born to two stateless parents could receive Uzbekistani citizenship only if both parents had a residence permit.
On March 13, the president signed a new law on citizenship. While the new law did not come fully into effect until September 13, the provision that confers citizenship to registered stateless persons who were granted permanent residence in the country before January 1, 1995, went into effect on April 1. According to the UNHCR representative for Central Asia, of the more than 97,000 stateless persons residing in the country, 49,228 individuals benefited from the new provision and would be recognized as citizens. In a statement on March 17, UNHCR welcomed the law and noted its role in providing recommendations to national authorities during its drafting. The UN Secretary-General’s Office issued a statement on March 19 congratulating the country on passing the new law, noting it was a significant contribution toward the United Nations’ global effort to end statelessness by 2024.
On December 29, in his end-of-the-year address to parliament, President Mirziyoyev announced plans to grant Uzbekistan citizenship to stateless persons resident in the country since 2005. Media reported this would give 20,000 more persons the opportunity to become citizens.