Uzbekistan: The slow death of journalism in Karakalpakstan

The protests against changes to the Uzbek constitution, which took place two years ago in the autonomous region Karakalpakstan and were violently repressed by the central government, remain such a taboo topic that journalists who recall the facts today are arrested, imprisoned and falsely accused of separatism. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns this censorship, which threatens to turn the region into an information desert.

A deafening, imposed silence is suppressing information about  the government’s violent repression of demonstrations that took place in Nukus, capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, during 1-3 July 2022. A few rare independent media and YouTube influencers in the region continue to cover economic and environmental issues in an attempt to draw attention to the region's chronic development problems. But these reports  still displease the authorities in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital over 1,000 kilometres away, who see them as disguised criticism of their policies. 

The cases of Mustafa Tursynbayev and Salamat Seitmuratov are a good example. The appeal against their five-year prison sentences for extortion, corruption and fraud is due to be heard on 8 July. These two YouTubers, working for the news channels Nukus-Online N1 (with more than 150,000 subscribers) and Halyk TV (with nearly 50,000 subscribers) respectively, were investigating the mass illegal deforestation caused by the rice industry. RSF was only able to confirm their arrest at the end of June 2024, even though they had disappeared from the networks in autumn 2023 – a sign of the government’s chokehold on the region.  

At least three other journalists have been convicted for their work in the last two years. On 17 March 2023, Abdimalik Khojanazarov, editor-in-chief of Iel Khyzmetinde, one of the few local independent media, was sentenced to five years' house arrest and fined 230 million sums (over $18,000), as was Essimkhan Kanaatov, an environmental journalist with the daily Ishonch. The two journalists were tried with 26 co-defendants on charges of "inciting and organising mass riots" and "producing and distributing content posing a threat to public security".

Bakhtiyar Kadirbergenov, who was arrested on 1 July 2022 while covering the demonstration in Nukus, spent six months in pre-trial detention before being sentenced to seven years in prison for "organising mass riots with weapons" and "hooliganism and resisting a representative of public authority.” His sentence was eventually reduced to five years on appeal on 5 June 2023. All the content on his YouTube channel has been deleted.

"The Uzbek authorities equate providing information in Karakalpakstan with organising riots. Independent journalism in this autonomous region has almost been wiped out by crackdowns in the past two years. RSF is alarmed by this blanket of repression on a subject so vital to public interest and by the criminalisation of the work of journalists — who must be released immediately.

Jeanne Cavelier
Head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk

Even outside Karakalpakstan, Uzbek journalists trying to report on the 2022 protests, their roots and their consequences are also targeted. After more than six months in pre-trial detention, Lolagul Kallykhanova was sentenced to an eight-year suspended prison sentence, including three mandatory years for "plotting to seize power, or overthrow the constitutional order; organising mass riots accompanied by violence; and disseminating socially dangerous content with prior conspiracy by a group of people using the Internet," on 31 January 2023. British journalist Joanna Lillis, a correspondent for the Central Asian news website Eurasianet and the British weekly The Economist, was also arrested on 3 July 2022 and forced to delete the images she had taken.

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