Fazliddin Mehmonov considers himself a journalist and a blogger, and does not apologize one bit for wearing both hats. The 30-year-old from Namangan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, admits that he and his colleagues act unprofessional at times.
“We are new in this field and too passionate," Mehmonov said. "It’s hard to control our energy and drive because we cover hard issues, relevant to the lives of our people.”
He and dozens of bloggers and media watched on May 10 as a judge in the Surkhandarya region convicted their colleague, Otabek Sattoriy, of extortion and slander.
The prosecutor asked for 11 years, accusing Sattoriy of blackmailing and defaming local officials for personal benefit. The judge threw out some accusations but sentenced Sattoriy to 6½ years in prison.
Sattoriy, who ran a blog called Xalq fikri (People’s Opinion), has denied the charges and plans to appeal.
"I shivered with horror, because I know he is innocent,” Mehmonov said of the verdict.
Mehmonov and Sattoriy started blogging together last year. They focus on local economic and social issues, including energy supplies, prices and markets, development projects and local government spending. He remembers Sattoriy discovering suspected extortion and theft while investigating corruption in the energy supply chain.
Human rights experts have condemned the verdict, suggesting the charges were “trumped up” in retaliation for Sattoriy’s blog.
The conviction is “a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues,” Gulnoza Said, head of the Europe and Central Asia desk at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer who teaches at the University of Southern California, said on Twitter that with Sattoriy’s imprisonment, “Uzbekistan has resumed a notorious place among the list of countries who jail critical journalists and attack free speech.”
With the sentencing of blogger #OtabekSattoriy to 6.5 years imprisonment today on dubious charges #Uzbekistan has resumed a notorious place among the list of countries who jail critical journalists & attack free speech—rubicon many rooting for change pleaded w/ govt not to cross https://t.co/AqtwbhSx9h— Steve Swerdlow (@steveswerdlow) May 10, 2021
For Mehmonov, who was a witness for the defense, the conviction is a sign that his colleague’s reporting got too close to sensitive issues.
“The Uzbek political system, local and central, is so corrupt that it responds aggressively when you touch a nerve,” Mehmonov said.
He and other bloggers told VOA that Uzbek authorities suppress those who investigate matters that touch high authorities.
Khurshid Daliyev, a blogger and journalist who runs the Human.uz news site, said that he sometimes receives warnings. “Those being criticized often send a representative seeking a compromise or trying to buy you off," he said. "When you don’t accept, they tend to threaten or bother you, sometimes through your family and friends.”
Daliyev said that when he reported on illegal land leases in his native Andijan region earlier this year, a social media campaign tried to discredit him.
“They just wait for some minor mistake to take revenge,” Daliyev said. “We have to be extremely careful and as professional as we can.”
Mehmonov said journalists who covered Sattoriy’s case could do good stories from Surkhandarya or anywhere, “but convicting critical voices like Otabek’s washes away the gains in any sector.”
Justice itself has become a prisoner in Uzbekistan, lawyer and blogger Zafarbek Solijonov posted on his popular Telegram channel. Like Mehmonov, he questioned why those in positions of power appear to face no justice or lighter sentences.
Solijonov said that when the Sardoba dam burst last year, a catastrophe that cost Uzbekistan billions of dollars and killed at least four people, only a few were punished and with much lighter sentences than the blogger received.
Columnists, not reporters
Uzbek bloggers regard themselves as columnists who, unlike journalists, can express opinion. Solijonov was a reporter for Kun.uz before turning to blogging. He told VOA he values his independence.
Mehmonov covers news and produces video blogs. He works for Effect.uz, a news website that often clashes with authorities for its aggressive style. Sattoriy employed a similar strategy.
“We are more effective this way, especially when we investigate people’s grievances," Mehmonov said. "We personalize issues, and yes, we may not be journalistically objective, but our focus is deeper, which helps us to get to the core of the problems. We push the responsible to respond. Uzbekistan needs this kind of media now.”
Authoritative bloggers are often invited to briefings and media conferences and get stories out faster than the mainstream media do. They also produce paid content, which raises questions about ethics. But, the bloggers told VOA, they must pay their bills.
As opinion leaders with sizable followings, they promote people and ideas and earn a living advertising products and services.
Uzbek social media are filled with discussions on retaliatory charges against those who take on powerful interests. In their criticism and calls for reforms, human rights groups point to the past three decades in Uzbekistan, defined by repression and political prisoners.
The Agency for Information and Mass Communication, whose regulation of the media industry does not directly extend to blogging, has remained largely silent on Sattoriy’s case.
In a brief February 8 statement on his arrest, the agency called on “law enforcement agencies to take account of the findings from all relevant sides.”
'Difficulties' in free-speech environment
Komil Allamjonov, the former head of the agency who now leads the Public Fund for the Support and Development of National Mass Media, said that reporters and bloggers must not lose hope. He pointed to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s calls for brave and change-making journalism.
Allamjonov is a former press secretary for the president.
“We are slowly learning how to live and work in a free-speech environment. It’s not easy; we are having difficulties, but we are learning,” Mirziyoyev said in his annual national address in December.
Allamjonov said there is resistance to media freedom in Uzbekistan. He said that because of his support for bloggers and journalists, he has been targeted himself.
"But it is impossible to silence everyone,” Allamjonov told VOA. “Moreover, there is no way back for Uzbekistan, which has already chosen the path of media freedom.”
“If we can’t defend our journalists, who are working very hard to make a positive difference, then others from the outside will fill that void with false information and conspiracies,” Allamjonov said.
Mehmonov and his colleagues agree, but regard such comments with skepticism.
“The system flaunted its power, sending a chilling message to all and especially those just entering journalism and blogging; there is a thick red line,” Mehmonov said.
This story originated in VOA’s Uzbek Service.