Abdumalik Bobaev, who reports on Uzbekistan for the Voice of America, is on trial for reporting, among other things, that journalists go to trial in Uzbekistan for doing their jobs.
Bobaev, who has reported on Uzbekistan for VOA for the past five years, is on trial in Tashkent, charged with slander, insult and endangering public security. If convicted, he could face up to eight years in jail.
The 6,700-word indictment recently was translated from Uzbek into Russian and posted on the Fergana.ru website. It showed a state censorship unit had been very attentive to listeners of the VOA Uzbek service.
Charges "complete falsifications"
Bobaev's indictment contains a long list of Bobaev's reports - child labor in cotton fields, the drying up of the Aral Sea, and the trial and conviction of two reporters last June. By reporting on these trials and saying Uzbekistan's "... government controls the media, and pressures journalists," the indictment charges that Bobaev "was openly insulting the judiciary and law enforcement agencies of Uzbekistan."
Reached by cellphone in Tashkent, Bobaev denied the charges, saying they were "complete falsifications.'' But knowing the state of press freedom in Uzbekistan, he said he is not optimistic about the outcome.
When the charges were filed last month, VOA Director Danforth W. Austin said in a statement, "Mr. Bobaev, like all VOA journalists, is required to present accurate and balanced reports, and he should not be penalized for doing his job."
Before the trial started in the Tashkent courtroom on Monday, activists briefly unfolded banners reading: "A Bobaev, people know their heroes!" and "Down with judicial arbitrariness".
History of censorship
During the past two years, Uzbekistan has tried and jailed eight reporters. Another reporter, Vladimir Berezovsky, a Russian, also is on trial on slander charges.
The Uzbekistan government routinely denies visas to foreign journalists. As a result, coverage of the most populous country in Central Asia is left to reports from travelers and a dwindling band of Uzbeks brave enough to report for foreign news organizations.
A statement from Paris-based Reporters without Borders reads, "Bobaev is one of the country's last outspoken journalists. The authorities have long had him in their sights and have been harassing him since the start of the year, but he has never stopped providing independent coverage of Uzbek society." In the rights group's ranking of press freedom in 175 countries, Uzbekistan ranks at 160, near the bottom.
In a country where Internet access is growing, the government increasingly blocks and filters foreign news websites. The indictment against Bobaev cites offending articles on the VOA Uzbek website as frequently as it cites VOA radio broadcasts.
The head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, Surat Ikramov, said press freedom does not exist in Uzbekistan. Talking by telephone from Tashkent, he said all media in Uzbekistan is under control of the government, and that no newspaper, magazine or radio station can criticize the government.
The media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, has written to Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov, saying, "The cases of Bobaev and Berezovsky are yet another indication that the press freedom-situation in Uzbekistan continues to deteriorate, and I urge the authorities to reverse this trend."
Deadly, disturbing harassment
In a disturbing form of harassment, a state-run television channel early this year branded as traitors the Uzbekistan correspondents for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The channel broadcast their photos, home addresses, and schools attended by their children.
Three years ago, Alisher Saipov, a VOA Uzbek service reporter, was shot dead outside his office in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, one month after Uzbekistan official media branded him a traitor.
Before Bobaev's trial started, a U.S. Embassy statement in Tashkent said, "We are deeply concerned about the criminal case against Mr. Bobaev, as well as its implications for media freedom in Uzbekistan. We are following the case very closely and expect Uzbekistan to uphold its constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression."
On Monday, an American embassy official was allowed to attend Bobaev's trial.