a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the government did not respect these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order. The government officially and unofficially restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government or discuss matters of public interest, and it made frequent use of laws criminalizing libel and slander as “hate speech.”
On April 5, the Supreme Court rejected blogger Otabek Sattoriy’s appeal of his 6.5-year sentence for extortion and slander. Sattoriy was arrested and convicted in 2021 after taking videos of merchants and reporting on price gouging in local bazaars. The Committee to Project Journalists and HRW expressed concern regarding the government’s handling of the case.
In January the Almazar District Court of Tashkent sentenced Fozilhoja Arifhojayev, a religious blogger who regularly criticized the country’s clerical authorities, to a 7.5-year prison term for possessing “materials threatening public safety and public order” on his mobile phone.
On November 16, at the complaint of the deputy mayor of Tashkent, Sevinch Sadullayeva was arrested, jailed five days, fined 225,000 soum ($20), and forced to undergo psychological counseling for videos and photographs she posted to her social media account. Most of the posts were photographs with her and her boyfriend. According to media she frequently wore “revealing” clothing and swimsuits in her posts.
On November 20, the Yunusabad District Criminal Court of Tashkent fined civil activist and independent journalist Aleksei Garshin 108 million soum ($10,000) for “insulting” a woman in a Telegram group chat. Garshin was known for regularly posting YouTube videos fiercely critical of President Mirziyoyev, including a series of investigative videos revealing a secret resort allegedly built for the president in the mountains outside of Tashkent on a nature reserve. Garshin reported that after livestreaming a solitary demonstration of support for Ukraine outside the Ukrainian embassy in March, he experienced increased pressure from authorities and believed his fine to be retaliation for his activities.
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 founders, chief editors, 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 requires foreign media outlets to conform to domestic media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny some foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, authorities continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s accreditation request, but they accredited three RFE/RL journalists to cover the October Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand. Other broadcasters, such as the BBC, the Voice of America, and Eurasianet, were accredited.
The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred. The law holds bloggers accountable for the accuracy of their posts and prohibits content deemed defaming to an individual’s “honor and dignity.” A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint.
Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to arrest, harassment, and intimidation.
On April 15, Rost24 journalist Anora Sodikova reported she received government pressure and threats for an article linking 25 Uzbeks in the security services to the Pandora Papers, including Jahongir Usmanov, son of a late high-level official. Sadiqova removed the story from Rost24 but kept it on her Facebook page. She also released a video that she believed led to the threats.
According to a now-deleted report by the digital news outlet Zamon.com, on June 11, law enforcement officers detained two journalists from independent broadcaster Sevimli TV and beat them after they attempted to enter a soccer stadium in Tashkent. The report said the officers denied the journalists entry to the stadium, and when they started to film from outside, the officers confiscated their press passes, and a group of six or seven police officers began beating them and shocking them with tasers. One of the journalists needed medical treatment. The Committee to Protect Journalists called for authorities to investigate the case and ensure that any law enforcement officers who obstructed or attacked the press were held to account thoroughly and transparently.
On June 13, in the Yangi Bozor shopping center in Andijan, an employee of the Andijan city Department of Internal Affairs obstructed the work of and forcibly seized the cell phone of a Human.uz employee who was filming the sale of sugar.
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, including Online Media: 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 to 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 critical stories on matters such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. The literary journal Adobiyat Gazetesi also published stories by authors who were on a “blacklist,” which resulted in scrutiny that limited its ability to publish.
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.
On March 6, Radio Ozodlik (the Uzbek service of RFE/RL) reported that some bloggers and journalists who tried to cover the January unrest in Kazakhstan said they were summoned by security forces and asked to write less on this topic, not to distribute videos, and not to call for rallies.
According to Reporters Without Borders, authorities intimidated journalists and bloggers into toning down their coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and some articles on the subject on the popular digital news sites Kun.uz and Daryo.uz were later deleted. Kun.uz editor Umid Shermukhammedov claimed in a since-deleted Facebook post that he and two of the site’s founders were summoned for questioning by the State Security Service on February 26. The editor was reportedly ordered to cover the subject in a more “neutral” way. On April 19, Reporters Without Borders called on the government to allow journalists to freely report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Media outlets significantly increased their coverage of events in Ukraine in the second half of the year.
In June and July Gazeta.uz removed four articles criticizing the government’s proposed constitutional reforms, including a June 22 article on a proposal that would allow the president to run for unlimited terms, a June 28 article on a proposal to strip the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan of its political status as an autonomous republic, and two July articles covering the unrest in Nukus. The articles disappeared from the website shortly after publication, reportedly in response to threats against the outlet.
Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose substantial monetary fines for defamation, including libel and slander. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Nevertheless, some bloggers and activists openly criticized the government on social media without legal reprisal.
A 2021 law established criminal liability for publicly insulting or defaming the president using social networks, the internet, or both. Conviction of an offense is punishable by three years’ correctional labor, restriction of movement for two to five years, or up to five years’ imprisonment.
On February 3, a district criminal court in Khorezm sentenced blogger Sobirjon Babaniyazov to three years in prison for posting videos and audio messages on social media that insulted the president. Babaniyazov apologized in court and claimed he was drunk when he made the videos. The government’s forensic linguistic examination found the footage constituted a public insult of the president.
There remain no updates to the 2021 case of Valijon Kalanov, who was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric clinic after his detention by the State Security Services for insulting the president on social media. According to a statement by the Jizzakh Region Prosecutor’s Office, Kalanov posted a video misinterpreting the president’s reforms on his Facebook and YouTube pages that “insulted and slandered the president and disseminated information that had a negative impact on the president’s reputation.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order. 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, terrorism, 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, information that involves pornography, or promotes drug use. Conviction of insulting or slandering the president online or in the press is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites, although select “sensitive” websites remain blocked. All websites in the .uz domain were required to register with authorities and provide the names of their founders, chief editors, and staff members. The government continued to block human rights news websites such as Forum 18 and Ozodlik. 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 2021 the Law on Personal Data, which requires companies to store the personal data of citizens on servers in the country, came into effect. Additionally, these servers must be registered with the State Inspectorate for Control of Informatization and Telecommunications (Uzkomnazorat).
In 2021 the government blocked several websites, including Twitter, TikTok, and VKontakte. After Uzkomnazorat blocked Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and other websites for three hours later in the year, the president fired the inspectorate’s head, calling these blockages “erroneous and uncoordinated.” On March 25, the government unblocked Skype, blocked since 2015, and on August 1, it unblocked Twitter, WeChat, and VKontakte.
On April 26, the president signed a decree, “On additional measures for the further development of the field of intellectual property,” which creates a register of websites that violate copyright and related intellectual property rights.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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 restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
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.
The law requires demonstrators to obtain permits, but most demonstrators proceeded without filing permit applications. In some incidents authorities subjected citizens to substantial monetary fines, threats, arbitrary detention, or abuse for violating procedures for organizing meetings, rallies, and demonstrations or for facilitating unsanctioned events by providing space or materials. Organizers of “mass events” with the potential for more than 100 participants must sign agreements with the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the provision of security prior to advertising or holding such an event.
According to the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Karakalpakstan, on February 2, a large crowd blocked the highway around the Nukus Dekhkan market. Local authorities arrested three demonstrators for unauthorized demonstration. They were sentenced to 15 days in jail by the Nukus City Court.
RFE/RL reported that on February 24, an administrative court in Tashkent fined oppositionist Vazira Egamberdiyeva 1 million 350 thousand soum ($125) for having approximately 10 activists at her house to discuss the latest developments in Kazakhstan and the socioeconomic situation in Uzbekistan. She was found guilty of “creating conditions for holding unauthorized meetings, rallies, street marches and demonstrations.” On March 13, Tashkent City Court rejected Egamberdieva’s appeal.
On July 1, mass protests regarding expected changes to the constitution turned violent in Nukus, Karakalpakstan. The government deployed the national guard to quell the protests, and the president publicly claimed protesters had tried to take control of government buildings and seized government-owned weapons. The government reported 21 dead, 243 wounded, and 516 arrested. Several human rights groups raised concerns over the holding incommunicado of many arrestees, including journalists who were covering the events. The government assembled a commission to investigate the events in Nukus, headed by Ombudsperson Feruza Eshmatova and composed of members of the Oliy Majlis (Parliament), academics, and civil society organizations. The results of the investigation had not been released by year’s end.
Freedom of Association
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.
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 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.
The Ministry of Justice does not require NGOs to obtain approval to conduct events, but they must 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.
The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs. The administrative liability code imposes substantial monetary 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.
Due to the burdensome challenges of registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations could not obtain registration from the government. As a result, several civil society organizations could not establish themselves.
On June 13, the government instituted new regulations strengthening state control on civil society by governing the operation of local NGOs implementing international grants. Per the new regulations, local NGOs must submit to the Ministry of Justice a notification of receipt of foreign funds for implementing international grant projects. The Ministry of Justice then notifies the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which then approves or denies the project. After Foreign Ministry approval, the Ministry of Justice assigns a government “partner” to oversee implementation of the project. The NGO and its governmental partner must create a “roadmap” describing how the project will be implemented. These new regulations created a further chilling effect on the operation of civil society, resulting in long timelines between approval of internationally funded grant projects.
e. Protection of Refugees
The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. The country is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not aid refugees within its borders. UNHCR is not accredited in the country and is unable to directly assist refugees.
Following the August 2021 fall of Kabul, thousands of Afghans sought refuge from the Taliban in the country. The government reported that as of year’s end, there were 13,000 Afghan citizens residing in the country, while the United Nations estimated the number at 17,000. Most of these individuals were well established, having arrived before the Taliban takeover, but approximately 2,000 needed assistance. The government refrained from refouling these individuals back to Afghanistan but provided few services.
Access to Asylum: A presidential decree technically established a system of political asylum, but there were no reports of any individuals receiving political asylum in the country. International observers reported the political asylum system was “nonexistent.”
Refoulement: While there were no reports of the government refouling Afghan refugees, Afghans reported government officials often “encouraged” them to return to Afghanistan. The visa renewal process was expensive and rife with corruption; some individuals who applied for renewal received “exit visas,” which they interpreted as requiring them to depart the country.
Freedom of Movement: Immediately following the fall of Kabul, individuals fleeing Afghanistan without visas for the country were restricted to a secure camp in Termez near the border with Afghanistan. Most of these individuals “voluntarily” returned to Afghanistan, according to government reports. Most other Afghans in the country entered with valid visas. There were no reports of restriction of their movement.
Employment: Afghan citizens who entered on tourist visas are legally barred from working. While some refugees were able to find informal employment, most depended on their savings and money transfers from friends and family members.
Access to Basic Services: Afghans in the country were typically able to receive care at government hospitals and clinics. Most refugees reported they were unable to enroll their children in local schools.
Temporary Protection: In the fall of 2021, the government provided temporary protection to 498 persons who entered from Afghanistan in former Afghan-government military aircraft. Refugees were held in a secure residential camp near Termez pending third-country processing and relocation. Approximately 2,000 other Afghan refugees who lived in the country did not receive humanitarian protection from the government.