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November 10, 2010

VOA Reporter to Appeal Court Verdict in Uzbekistan

by Albina Kovalyova

An Uzbekistan journalist, who was convicted and fined over $10,000, maintains his innocence and will appeal the verdict on Friday.

Last month Abdumalik Bobaev was found guilty on three charges - slander, insult and publishing information harmful to the public peace in a court in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent. The verdict was a relief for the journalist who feared he was facing eight years in prison. Instead he got off with a fine.

On Friday Bobaev, who reports on Uzbekistan for the Voice of America for the past five years, will appeal the verdict. He says he has done nothing wrong.

"I absolutely don't agree with the accusation," he said. "I protest my innocence. I have to use the chance that I have."

The journalist hopes to resume work after the appeal. But he sees the case as a warning to be more careful in the future.

Uzbekistan ranks as the twelfth most restrictive country in the world for press freedom according to research by the U.K-based magazine The Economist in 2008. Eight reporters have been imprisoned in the country in the last two years.

Surat Ikramov is the head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan. He has also been fined for publishing an article about a suspicious death of a local singer. He believes local journalists who work for foreign media organizations in Uzbekistan are being targeted.

Ikramove told VOA that local journalists "would not be allowed" to publish critical or serious material.

Bobaev's case has been widely covered by the international media and Babaev believes that played a role in his relatively light punishment.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, asking to ensure the freedom of the journalist before the trial in October.

This week the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake met Bobaev in Tashkent. The US Embassy in Tashkent has also been following the case. An embassy spokesman read out a statement in support of Bobaev.

The embassy will follow Mr. Bobaev's appellant case closely, he says. The U.S. remains concerned about the implications of his case for the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan. During his visit to Uzbekistan November 9 through 10, Assistant Secretary Blake met with Bobaev to discuss his ongoing case.

Though the court's sentence was lighter than usual,  Ikramov says the journalistic community still believes that things are not getting better.