Once the editor of Uzbekistan’s leading opposition newspaper, Erk (Freedom), Muhammad Bekjanov is one of the world’s longest-detained reporters, having spent 18 years in prison. Today, he considers himself an independent journalist serving the Uzbek community and an inadvertent advocate for political reform and rehabilitation in Uzbekistan. Bekjanov traveled to Washington, accompanied by his oldest daughter Aygul, on September 5 and 6 for a series of meetings with members of Congress, the State Department, human rights organizations and the press. During these meetings Bekjanov discussed his experiences as a political prisoner, the media environment today, and opportunities to push for genuine political reform in Uzbekistan.
“We are grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with Muhammad earlier this month and discuss the press freedom climate in Uzbekistan with other NGOs and members of the US government, said Margaux Ewen, Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “We commend his courage and resilience, and are elated that Muhammad is now free and has been reunited with his family. However, the Uzbek government should be required to make reparations for Muhammad’s eighteen years in prison, and to encourage media freedom, starting by unblocking leading online media outlets.”
RSF awarded Bekjanov the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2013, and has worked closely on his case for many years. Bekjanov was released from prison just months after the brutal President Islam Karimov died in September 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office. Under new leadership, dozens of political prisoners, including at least 10 journalists, have been released from prison and some new independent media outlets are forming. While many are eager to applaud the Uzbek government for these improvements, Bekjanov says the press freedom situation “has only moved up one millimeter.” Around 10,000 political prisoners remain detained in Uzbekistan, and reports of bloggers being arrested and detained since late-August have recently surfaced.
“It is very important to keep pressure on the Uzbek government in order to make sure they’re actually complying with human rights and political reforms,” Bekjanov told RSF.
Openly traveling to Tashkent for the first time in years in October 2017, RSF raised Uzbekistan's press freedom issues at the OSCE Central Asian Media Conference, notably the imprisonment of journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, who was later released. Bekjanov says it’s critical for press freedom groups to monitor the government’s surveillance and censorship of the internet because so many people rely on international or exiled sources, which are often only accessible online, for independent information. Further, he raised concerns that “old criminals” from the Karimov administration remain in positions of power under President Mirziyoyev, who was Karimov’s prime minister for 13 years. Bekjanov says President Mirziyoyev is “fully responsible” for rehabilitating former political prisoners, which would include clearing those unjustly detained of all charges, returning their stolen property, and adequately compensating them for the moral and physical damage associated with imprisonment. To this day, he has not received anything of the sort.
Though he is still reacclimating to life outside prison, Bekjanov has already published a book about his experiences in eight of Uzbekistan’s most brutal prisons, and when he isn’t spending time with his grandchildren and family he is writing the second installment of his story. However, years of solitary confinement and severe torture have taken a toll on Bekjanov, who is now deaf in his right ear. His oldest daughter Aygul says her father, however, is rarely one to complain.
“Even if I’m sick I don’t want to put anyone under pressure,” Bekjanov told RSF.
After being released from prison in February 2017 Bekjanov remained in Uzbekistan on parole for about a year before arriving in the United States in July 2018 to be reunited with his family. As editor of Erk, in the early 1990s Bekjanov tried to initiate a debate on such taboo subjects as the state of the economy, the use of forced labor in the cotton harvest, and the Aral Sea environmental disaster. He was kidnapped by Uzbek authorities while living in Ukraine in 1999 and was detained in multiple prisons throughout Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.