Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan

Not Free
26
100
A Obstacles to Access 7 25
B Limits on Content 10 35
C Violations of User Rights 9 40
Last Year's Score & Status
25 100 Not Free

Overview

The internet remains tightly controlled in Uzbekistan, though the coverage period saw a slight opening of the space for free expression online. Notably, access was restored to the websites of many (but not all) international news media and human rights organizations, marking the end of a nearly 15-year policy of blocking independent, critical voices.

This change comes as part of Uzbekistan’s cautious liberalization, which began following the 2016 death of strongman ruler Islam Kasimov. His successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, still presides over one of the most repressive countries in Eurasia. As the crackdown on Islamic bloggers during the coverage period demonstrates, the Uzbek government continues to violate the digital rights of its citizens. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment remain common, although highly publicized cases of abuse have led to dismissals and prosecutions for some officials. Despite some high-profile releases, the government still holds numerous prisoners on political or religious grounds.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 - May 31, 2019

  • In May 2019, the Uzbek government announced that the websites of over a dozen international news media and human rights organizations were accessible, blaming “certain technical problems” for their long-term unavailability (see B1).

  • In September 2018, the government promulgated its first-ever website-blocking policy, introducing formal avenues of appeal for content hosts. However, the extent to which this policy has been implemented remained unclear at the end of the coverage period (see B3).

  • August and September 2018 saw security services target at least a dozen Islamic bloggers for social media posts criticizing measures aimed at enforcing secularism in Uzbekistan. Multiple bloggers were detained and made to remove their posts (see B2, C3).

A Obstacles to Access

A growing portion of the population had internet access during the reporting period, with increasing mobile penetration playing a critical role in improving access. However, high prices, low speeds, and limits on data continue to curb internet use. During the coverage period, the number of Wi-Fi hotspots soared to 1,200 in the capital, Tashkent, though no significant change in public Wi-Fi availability was reported in the regions.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 36

Rates of internet penetration continue to rise in Uzbekistan. Internet access is based primarily on asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) technology. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that internet access was available to 79.9 percent of households as of 2018, though only 52.3 percent of the population uses the internet.1 Users increasingly access the internet through their mobile devices, with the number of mobile internet users reaching 20 million in April 2018 (in a country of 32.9 million people).2 That year, the ITU estimated Uzbekistan’s mobile broadband penetration rate at 62.4 percent, while the country’s fixed broadband penetration rate was just 12.7 percent.3

Internet connection speeds remain relatively slow. Subscribers experience poor connection quality and frequent disconnections. According to Speedtest, as of May 2019, the average fixed broadband download speed was 14.37 Mbps (putting Uzbekistan in 131st place globally), while the average mobile broadband download speed was 9.77 Mbps (129th globally).4 In 2018, Uztelecom, the state-run telecommunications monopoly, completed a modernization plan to expand the capacity of Uzbekistan’s two international internet traffic nodes, which increased the capacity tenfold, to 1.2 Tbps.5

In 2018, Uztelecom launched a project called Transformation 2020,6 which aims to expand and improve internet access throughout the country, as well as make it more affordable.

Uztelecom and at least two private mobile service providers offer public Wi-Fi hotspots in limited locations. In February 2018, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree that introduced tax relief and advertisement rights for businesses investing in Wi-Fi hotspots.7 In December 2018, SOLA, a private company working in partnership with state authorities, reported that 1,200 hotspots were available in Tashkent, with another 3,000 on the way.8 SOLA also outlined its plans to set up 45,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in the regions, as part of a plan to boost international tourism. Public access points are popular, particularly among young internet users.

Since 2005, public entities such as educational institutions, youth organizations, libraries, and museums must connect to the wider internet via ZiyoNET,9 a nationwide information network that enables a greater degree of government monitoring and filtering (see C5).

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 03

In general, access to the internet remains expensive relative to household income in Uzbekistan. Prices for communications services including internet subscriptions increased slightly during the coverage period, according to government statistics.1 The government reported in July 2018 that the average monthly income was about $190.2 The average monthly cost of a fixed-line broadband connection in 2018 was $21.26,3 while 1 GB of mobile data cost $3.27 on average.4 According to the ITU, Uzbekistan has the second most expensive mobile internet in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Tajikistan.5

Internet penetration rates are significantly lower outside of Tashkent. Tashkent has the highest rate of internet penetration and fiber to the building (FTTB) broadband connectivity in Uzbekistan, significantly higher than the country's 12 regions and the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.6 According to the latest data available, Uztelecom’s FTTB broadband service reaches 4,500 buildings in Tashkent, compared to just four in Termez, a city in the remote Surkhandariya region on the border with Afghanistan, with a population of 136,000.7 Information and communication technology (ICT) facilities also depend on a stable electricity supply, which further disadvantages rural areas.8

Minors are officially prohibited from visiting internet cafés unsupervised between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.9

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 36

The government exercises significant control over ICT infrastructure and continued to block access to some Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services during part of the coverage period, but access was subsequently restored.1

Uztelecom runs the International Packet Switching Center to aggregate international internet traffic at a single point within its infrastructure. By concentrating the ICT market in a state-owned company and centralizing international connections into one “choke point,” the government can more easily shut down the internet and engage in censorship and surveillance. Uztelecom is also an upstream internet service provider (ISP) and sells internet traffic to domestic ISPs at wholesale prices. Private ISPs are prohibited by law from bypassing Uztelecom’s infrastructure to connect to the international internet, and from installing and maintaining their own satellite stations to establish internet connectivity. However, the government reportedly plans to permit private ISPs to establish their own gateways to the international internet in 2020.2

The TAS-IX peering center and content delivery network, established in 2004, interconnects the networks of private ISPs to enable traffic conveyance and exchange at no mutual charge, and without the need to establish international internet connections via Uztelecom.3 Private ISPs provide no traffic limitations to websites hosted within the TAS-IX networks but filter and block other websites to the same extent as Uztelecom.4

The authorities have been known to periodically impose temporary internet shutdowns. Most recently, internet users in Tashkent reported an interruption in connectivity in 2016, after Uztelecom warned of disruptions for maintenance purposes; observers speculated that the disturbance was related to the installation of surveillance equipment.5 The authorities also order mobile service providers to shut down internet and text message services nationwide to prevent cheating during university entrance exams held every August.6 The use of mobile technology is formally restricted in schools and universities except in “justified and urgent” cases, in order to prevent cheating and access to banned content.

Several services offering VoIP calls through the internet, including Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, had been persistently unavailable to users in Uzbekistan since 2015. However, in May 2018, access to these services, including Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, was reportedly restored.7 Also in May, the CEO of Uztelecom, speaking at an event hosted by the Ministry for the Development of Information Technologies and Communications (MiTC), which regulates ICTs, blamed the VoIP blocks on a technical bug.8

In November 2018, the president signed a decree reorganizing the country’s internet governance apparatus, creating the State Inspectorate for Control in the Field of Information and Telecommunications to oversee compliance with ICT-related legislation, the Technical Assistance Center to collect, retain, and analyze data from ISPs and law enforcement bodies on “threats to information security,” and a third entity to help implement the government’s “safe city” surveillance system (see C5).9 The extent to which this decree has been implemented is not yet fully known.

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 16

There are numerous legal, regulatory, and economic obstacles limiting the diversity of Uzbekistan’s ICT sector. As of 2017, the latest year for which official statistics are available, 654 companies were classified as providing data or telecommunications services including the internet, down from 854 in 2016.1 This figure includes internet cafés and does not indicate the number of private ISPs.

The state controls much of the ICT sector. Uztelecom enjoys a monopoly in the fixed broadband market. Five mobile service providers operate in the mobile market, including three state-owned firms: Ucell, UMS (Mobiuz), and UzMobile, as well as two privately owned operators: Perfectum Mobile (owned by the Uzbek company Rubicon Wireless Communication) and Beeline (owned by VEON, which is based in the Netherlands but is primarily owned by a Russian investment group). Ucell, one of the largest mobile service providers (along with Beeline),2 was acquired by the government in November 2018 after its former owner, Sweden’s Telia Company, announced in 2015 that it would exit Uzbekistan.3

Service providers are required to have licenses to operate, and in 2005, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted Resolution No. 155, which stipulates that providers must register as a legal entity before being issued a license.4 Licensing is often encumbered by political interests. Bribery has long marred the licensing process.5

Other factors impeding telecommunications companies include an unstable regulatory environment, complicated customs procedures for the import of ICT equipment, and rules limiting currency conversion.

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

The telecommunications market does not have an independent regulator. Since 2015, the MiTC regulates telecommunications services related to the internet. The ministry combines the functions of a policymaker, regulator, and content provider. It is responsible for, inter alia, licensing ISPs and mobile service providers (see A4), promoting technical standards for telecommunications technologies such as 4G (LTE), and providing e-governance services. The MiTC operates opaquely.

The state-owned Uzinfocom administers the “.uz” top-level domain. Fourteen private companies were authorized to provide registry services in the “.uz” domain zone as of May 2019.1

B Limits on Content

After restoring access to a number previously blocked websites of human rights groups and mass media agencies, the government blamed the previous unavailability of the sites on "technical problems." These bold steps toward opening the internet came in the context of broader movement towards liberalization, including the government’s closer relationship with the European Union and allowing Human Rights Watch (HRW) to monitor the human rights situation in the country. However, some critical news outlets in the Uzbek language remained blocked, ostensibly due to violations of “ethical principles.”

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 26

Significant blocking and filtering limits access to online content related to political and social topics, particularly sites and platforms that discuss human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. However, a number of websites for independent media outlets and human rights groups were restored during the reporting period.

In May 2019, Komil Allamjonov, the director of the Information and Mass Communications Agency, announced in a post on social media that access to certain online media outlets and human rights organizations would be restored,1 following a statement from the OSCE.2 The websites of many independent online media outlets had been largely inaccessible since 2005,3 following a violent government crackdown on peaceful antigovernment protests in Andijan.4 Access was restored to a variety of international and domestic news sites, including Voice of America (VoA), Amerika Ovozi (VoA’s Uzbek service), BBC Uzbek, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Deutsche Welle (DW), AsiaTerra, Eurasianet, Fergana News, UzMetronom, and Centre1.5 Additionally, the websites of Amnesty International, HRW, Reporters without Borders (RSF), and other online media outlets and human rights organizations were unblocked. Allamjonov did not say that the government had blocked these websites, blaming “certain technical problems” for their long-term unavailability.6 Observers speculated that the move was intended to foster goodwill ahead of the German president’s visit to Uzbekistan at the end of May 2019.7

Other websites, including the Uzbek news service Eltuz, the human rights organization Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, RFE/RL’s Russian and Uzbek services (Radio Svoboda and Ozodlik Radio), Open Democracy Russia, the public opinion platform Avaaz, and the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, remained inaccessible. Allamjonov explained the continued blocking of Ozodlik Radio in May 2019, accusing it of violating “ethical principles.”8Additionally, days after Allamjonov’s announcement, access to UzMetronom was again restricted, according to an editor who wished to remain anonymous.

Previously, in January 2019, users in Uzbekistan were briefly able to access previously blocked websites of international news organizations and human rights groups such as Foreign Policy, Current Time TV, Ozodlik Radio, DW, Amnesty International, and the old website of Fergana News.9 Some commentators explained that short-term access was “granted” ahead of the Uzbek president’s official visit to Germany,10 but others alleged that a new blocking system was being tested by the authorities.

In September 2018, Facebook became inaccessible to users in Uzbekistan without the use of a virtual private network (VPN).11 Both Uztelecom and the MiTC denied responsibility for the apparent blocking.12 Meanwhile, state authorities appeared able to access the social network, as officials continued to post updates on Facebook. When the Russian social media platform Vkontakte and YouTube also became inaccessible, in September 2018, the first deputy minister of the MiTC, Olimjon Umarov, explained that the platforms’ inaccessibility could be caused by a glitch related to the installation of the new equipment to increase the capacity of the International Packet Switching Center.13 In February 2019, all three services were unblocked, according to domestic news media.14 In August 2019, after the coverage period, Komil Allamjonov publicly blamed unnamed security services for the blockings, adding that the responsible parties were being punished.15

Also in September 2018, according to the US State Department, the authorities temporarily blocked Gazeta.uz, a popular online outlet.16 The blocking came after Gazeta.uz reported critically on the Uzbek government’s handling on the ongoing Aral Sea environmental disaster.

For reasons unknown, in mid-2018, the Uzbek government allegedly blocked several domestic online news outlets, including Kun.uz and Xabar.uz, according to Human Rights Watch.17 Uztelecom denied any involvement in the blocking,18 and the minister for the development of information technologies and communications promised to help resolve any “DNS-related technical problems."19 However, the US State Department claims that Kun.uz was blocked for “critical reporting on a relative” on the minister.20

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 14

There is extensive non-technical censorship of online content in Uzbekistan.

In September 2018, the authorities forced several bloggers to delete their Facebook posts or accounts after they published social and religious commentary (see C3).

During 2018, neither Facebook nor Twitter received any takedown requests from the government, according to the companies’ latest transparency reports.1 That year, Google received four takedown requests from the government, all related to copyright violations.2

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 04

The MiTC is responsible for regulating internet content: in particularly, content deemed harmful to the government. Its decisions to block content are nontransparent.

In September 2018, the government introduced guidelines on blocking websites. These guidelines mark the government’s first attempt to legitimize blocking, a practice it has long engaged in informally. According to the guidelines, the state-run Center for Mass Communications now engages in “round-the-clock tracking of the dissemination of information prohibited by Uzbek law on the internet,” forwarding any illegal content to two state bodies, the Public Monitoring Center and the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications, which then place it on a confidential blacklist that the MiTC uses as the basis for imposing restrictions.1 The expansive category of “prohibited” information includes “calls for a forced change of the existing constitutional order” and material that threaten the territorial integrity of Uzbekistan; “propaganda of war, violence, and terrorism,” as well as sites that promote religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; state secrets; incitements to “national, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred;” defamation; material that violates the right to privacy; content pertaining to illegal drugs; and pornography.2

Under these new guidelines, owners of blocked websites have the right to issue a complaint in court. Further, the authorities have pledged to unblock any blocked sites that voluntarily remove illegal content.3

It is not clear whether the government’s informal website-blocking regime remains in place. Under this regime, several government-linked entities have monitored and controlled online communications, though the opaque system offers few details on how decisions are made or what websites are blocked at any given time. The Center for the Monitoring of the Mass Communications Sphere takes various measures to maintain compliance with national legislation that restricts free expression.4 Among its key objectives, it is meant “to analyze the content of information disseminated online and ensure its consistency with existing laws and regulations.”5 The center has contributed to the takedowns of independent websites.6 The Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications, a secretive body established in 2011, oversees the center.7 The commission is not independent and must submit quarterly reports to the Cabinet of Ministers.8 Its membership is not public,9 but it is reportedly comprised exclusively of government employees. The commission is charged with evaluating online publications for content that has a “destructive and negative informational-psychological influence on the public consciousness of citizens,” fails to “maintain and ensure continuity of national and cultural traditions and heritage,” and aims to “destabilize the public and political situation,” among other potential violations.10

The commission has also assessed publications referred to it by the center or other state bodies, including the courts and law enforcement agencies, drawing on a designated pool of government-approved experts.11 Commission members have voted on whether internet content violates its guidelines based on reports from the experts. State bodies have acted on the commission’s decisions, including courts and “other organizations,” presumably private ISPs.12 There have been no procedures in place to notify those whose content is blocked, and no clear avenue for appeal.

Amendments to the Law on Informatization passed in 2014 brought bloggers and other online news providers, including citizen journalists, under state regulation and subjects them to content removal requirements. By the law's broad definition, any person may qualify as a blogger by disseminating information “of sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and other character” to the public through a website.13 The law requires bloggers to substantiate the credibility of “generally accessible information” prior to publishing or even reposting content, and obliges them to "immediately remove" information if it is not considered credible. The law entitles the Center for the Monitoring of the Mass Communications Sphere to limit access to websites that do not comply. The law also bans, among other things, “information inciting national, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred, as well as denigrating the honor and dignity of citizens.”14

Intermediaries can be held liable for third-party content hosted on their platforms and can be forced to remove such content. Under the 1999 Law on Telecommunications and several government resolutions, the licenses of downstream ISPs may be withheld or denied for failing to take measures to prevent their computer networks from being used to exchange information deemed to violate national laws. Under Order No. 216 passed in 2004, ISPs and operators “cannot disseminate information that, inter alia, calls for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order of Uzbekistan, instigates war and violence, contains pornography, or degrades and defames human dignity.”15 Given these broad restrictions, many individuals and organizations prefer to host their websites outside the country.16

  • 1. “Government Resolution on Measures to Improve Information Security on the World Wide Web has been adopted,” Telegram Channel @huquqiy_axborot representing the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan, September 06, 2018, available online at: https://teletype.in/@huquqiy_axborot/SJSw8HAwm
  • 2. “Government Resolution on Measures to Improve Information Security on the World Wide Web has been adopted,” Telegram Channel @huquqiy_axborot representing the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan, September 06, 2018, available online at: https://teletype.in/@huquqiy_axborot/SJSw8HAwm
  • 3. New regulations in Uzbekistan detail procedures to block extremist websites, Central Asia News, October 01, 2018, available at: http://central.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2018/10/01…
  • 4. ZhannaHördegen, “The Future of Internet Media in Uzbekistan: Transformation from State Censorship to Monitoring of Information Space since Independence,” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asiaed. Eric Freedman and Richard Schafer, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, April 2011), 99-121.
  • 5. Regulation No. 555, On the Measures of Improving the Organizational Structures in the Sphere of Mass Telecommunications, adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan on November 24, 2004. See OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile: Uzbekistan,” December 21, 2010, http://opennet.net/research/profiles/uzbekistan
  • 6. A news website Informator.uz was shut down in 2007. See, “Pochemuzakritonezavisimoe SMI Uzbekistana—Informator.Uz?” [Why the independent mass media of Uzbekistan, Informator.Uz, is closed?]UZ Forum (blog), September 20, 2007, www.uforum.uz/showthread.php?t=2565
  • 7. Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers, О дополнительныхмерахпосовершенствованиюсистемымониторинга в сферемассовыхкоммуникаций [On Supplementary Measures for the Improvement of the Monitoring System for the Sphere of Mass Communications] No. 228, August 5, 2011, SZ RU (2011) No. 32-33, item 336.
  • 8. Ibid, Annex II, art. 31.
  • 9. Ibid, Annex I, contains a list of the Commission's members that is not made public.
  • 10. Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers RU, No. 228, at art. 1 and Annex II, art. 5.
  • 11. Ibid, at art. 1 and Annex II, art. 14.
  • 12. Ibid, at Annex II, art. 26 and 29.
  • 13. Law RU No. ЗРУ-373, SZRU (2014) No. 36, item 452.; http://www.lex.uz/ru/docs/82956
  • 14. https://centralasiaprogram.org/archives/event/120-blogging-in-uzbekistan
  • 15. Regulation, ОпорядкепредоставлениядоступаксетиИнтернетвобщественныхпунктахпользования, [On Adoption of the Terms of Provision of Access to the Internet Network in Public Points of Use] promulgated by Order of the Communications and Information Agency of Uzbekistan No. 216, July 23, 2004, SZRU (2004) No. 30, item 350.
  • 16. 42% of UZ domain websites were hosted abroad. (Managing national domains in CIS [“Управление национальными доменами в СНГ”], Top Web Business, 13 January 2018, available online at: http://topwebbusinesses.net/item/896-1515809849; Cybersecurity of Uzbekistan in numbers: 2018 results [“Кибербезопасность Узбекистана в цифрах: итоги 2018 года”], available online at: https://tace.uz/articles/kiberbezopasnost-uzbekistana-v-tsifrakh-itogi-…

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 14

The slight opening of the online environment since President Mirziyoyev took office in 2016 has had a positive impact on self-censorship, although it still remains pervasive, given the government’s tight control over the media (particularly state media). Those commenting or reporting on topics deemed taboo, including criticism of the president or revelations about corruption, can still face harsh punishment.1 As a result of the government’s history of harassing journalists as well as their families, many online writers are cautious about what they post. Although some journalists domestic news outlets like Gazeta.uz and Kun.uz continued to shine a light on abuse in cotton industry during the coverage period, other outlets have refrained from tackling this or other controversial issues.

After the well-publicized arrest of bloggers like Bobomurod Abdullayev in 2017 (see C3), some social media users have abstained from aggressive criticism of the government while in Uzbekistan, with only foreign-based Uzbeks sharing their opinions freely.

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

The editorial direction of online versions of state-run news outlets is often determined by both official and unofficial government directives. This has remained the case under President Mirziyoyev. In April 2019, Saida Mirziyoyeva, President Mirziyoyev’s daughter, was appointed deputy head of the newly created presidential Press and Information Agency. In her new role, Mirziyoyeva is promoting “Uzbekistan's positive image abroad" and coordinating the press offices of various state agencies.1

The case of Said-Adbulaziz Yusupov, a journalist and the director of the Foundation on Support of Mass Media, illustrates the extent to which the government directs Uzbekistan’s media. In May 2019, Yusupov was arrested and charged with fraud. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, he misrepresented himself as a National Security Service (SGB) officer to extort money.2 Komil Allamjonov prohibited state-run outlets from covering Yusupov’s case, saying, "Once the SGB arrested him, it means he is guilty."3 Allamjonov’s statement surprised some analysts, in light of the mass restoration of online access to human rights organizations and independent media.

The Union of Youth of Uzbekistan, a government-affiliated youth organization, has recruited social media trolls from its ranks. These trolls smear government critics and spread misinformation, including false claims about the illegality of VPN usage in Uzbekistan. According to one report, union members have been encouraged to set up five Facebook profiles per person.4 According to another report, progovernment commentators are also active on Twitter.5

In January 2019, Facebook removed several “inauthentic” Russia-linked accounts and pages that targeted users in Uzbekistan.6

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 03

The economic and regulatory environment for online publishers is heavily constrained. The financial sustainability of independent online media outlets largely depends on foreign funding that remains subject to vigorous state control. The parliamentary Public Fund for Support and Development of Independent Print Media and News Agencies of Uzbekistan allocates state subsidies.1 It primarily grants the subsidies to state-owned and progovernment outlets.

Under 2007 amendments to the 1997 Law on Mass Media,2 any website engaged in the dissemination of information at least once every six months is considered "mass media" and is subject to official press registration.3 This process, which is generally known to be content-based and arbitrary, inhibits journalists and readers from exercising their rights to free expression and access to information.4 As of December 2018, 495 news-oriented websites, including online versions of traditional news media outlets, were registered as mass media in Uzbekistan.5 Online journalists themselves are subject to extensive regulation (see B3), and, as IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index reports, “only the state can decide who is permitted to practice journalism” in Uzbekistan.6 However, unregistered bloggers have taken an increasingly prominent place in the Uzbek media landscape, with the tacit approval of the government.

  • 1. Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan On Establishing the Public Foundation on Support and Development of Independent Mass Media and News Agencies of Uzbekistan, 16 November 2005, available online at: http://lex.uz/docs/115919
  • 2. 87 Law RU, Осредствахмассовойинформации, [On the Mass Media] No. 541-I, adopted December 26, 1997, as amended on January 15, 2007, SZRU (2007) No. 3, item 20, at art. 4.
  • 3. 88 Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers RU, О Дальнейшем Совершенствовании Порядка Государственной регистрации средств массовой информации в Республике Узбекистан, [On the Further Development of the Procedure for State Registration of the Mass Media in the Republic of Uzbekistan] No. 214, October 11, 2006, in SP RU (2007) No. 14, item 141, at art. 8.
  • 4. 89 UN Human Rights Committee, “Mavlonov and Sa'di v. the Republic of Uzbekistan,” Communication No. 1334/2004, Views adopted on April 29, 2009, UN Doc. CCPR/C/95/D/1334/2004, at par. 2.6, 2.11 and 8.3.
  • 5. "14 years of 'problems'. How media blocking affected life of Uzbekistan and what will happen further", ["14 лет «неполадок». Как блокировки СМИ сказались на жизни Узбекистана и что будет дальше"], Hook, May 14 2019, available at: https://hook.report/2019/05/slegka-razblokirovat/?fbclid=IwAR2nqWLTc6FM…
  • 6. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index…
B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 14

Though the online media environment remains severely restricted, since Mirziyoyev became president, there is evidence that some registered media outlets have begun to cover more politically and socially sensitive topics.1 For example, Kun.uz has criticized the government for failing to stop forced labor in the cotton industry.2

Independent news sites have historically been subject to arbitrary closure or retroactive deregistration.3 For example, 2015, a court ordered the closure of Noviy Vek, a weekly newspaper established in 1992 and known for its balanced reporting. Independent online media outlets are often forced to operate overseas to escape government repression, such as Centre1, which is based in Germany.

Many users access blocked websites using proxies or VPNs.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the Russian social networks Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte are available and widely used. Telegram channels are a popular source of relatively unfiltered information. For instance, IREX notes, “Zhenskiy Uzbekistan is a private channel on Telegram dedicated to feminism and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender affairs—topics so taboo that even most liberal and critical independent media outlets dare not tackle them.”4 Uzbek government officials have not taken steps to block Telegram, and many officials use the platform themselves.5

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 36

The government’s stringent policies regarding use of the internet and social media by Uzbek youth in particular discourage mobilization as a significant form of political engagement, as do technical restrictions on social media platforms and petition websites (see B1). However, a handful of political activists and regime critics actively use social media to reach supporters in and outside of Uzbekistan. They may raise awareness, but their mobilizing potential is limited, largely due to the repressive environment for freedom of speech and assembly. Political Twitter and Facebook accounts are generally administered by Uzbek dissidents living abroad, rather than activists living within the country.

However, the internet has increasingly become a space for activism, if not mobilization. For instance, an image of farmers and local administrators being forced by a government official to stand in a ditch full of water made the rounds on social media in October 2018,1 eventually leading President Mirziyoyev to fire the responsible official.2

In 2017, the murder of Jasurbek Ibragimov, a young medical student, sparked a wave of anger among social media users in Tashkent.3 A letter that Ibragimov’s mother wrote to the president asking for justice was shared widely across social media. Those moved by the letter and case held a peaceful protest and circulated a petition4 demanding accountability for Ibragimov’s murder. According to reports, the public’s response compelled those investigating the murder to release information to the public.5 Later in 2017, two organizers of the protest, Irina Zaydman and Maria Legler, were detained and charged with organizing unauthorized rallies; they were sentenced to 10 and 15 days of administrative arrest, respectively.6

Citizens continue to utilize the government’s “virtual office” initiative to directly speak with government representatives.

C Violations of User Rights

The government has broad powers to punish expression online and monitors social media routinely. Authorities temporarily detained 11 bloggers and charged them with administrative penalties for posting opinions critical of the government’s tight control over religious life. Later, two of them were detained by the SGB and charged with possessing "extremist" articles. Progovernment trolls maintain a fake news website to harass human rights activists. The government’s dealings with foreign companies supplying surveillance equipment continues to lack transparency.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 06

Uzbekistan's constitution protects the rights to freedom of expression and of the mass media, and prohibits censorship. Article 29 of the constitution guarantees the right to gather and disseminate information.1 However, in practice, these rights have generally not been respected, as evidenced by the prosecutions of journalists and the blocking of critical websites. National courts have largely failed to protect individuals, including professional journalists, against government retaliation for exercising their free expression rights. Rampant corruption, particularly within law enforcement agencies, as well as weak legislative and judicial bodies, continue to have a deleterious impact on freedom of expression, including online. Courts and executive agencies also operate without transparency, depriving the public of access to legal decisions.

Journalists are provided strong protections under Uzbekistan’s 1997 Law on the Protection of Professional Activity of Journalists. However, these protections are not fully respected in practice.2 After the coverage period, an amendment to the Law on Informatization was proposed that would grant bloggers the right to “conduct journalistic investigations,” among other things.3

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

The criminal code contains several provisions that have been used extensively to prosecute reporters and ordinary internet users, including prohibitions on threatening the constitutional order (Article 159); inciting ethnic, national racial, or religious hatred (Article 156); producing and disseminating of materials containing a threat to public security and order (Article 244-1); slander (Article 139); insult (Article 140); and insult of the president (Article 158).1 All of these offenses are punishable by fines in some cases, community services in other cases, and imprisonment in all cases. Further prohibitions typically placed on reporters and ordinary internet users are often based on vague information security rules.2

In 2016, amendments passed to Article 244-1 of the Criminal Code increased the penalty for the "manufacture, storage, distribution, or display of materials containing a threat to public security and public order," through mass media or telecommunications networks, from five to eight years imprisonment.3 The vaguely formulated offense prohibits "any form of dissemination of information and materials containing ideas of religious extremism, separatism and fundamentalism, calls for pogroms or violent eviction, or aimed at spreading panic among the population, as well as the use of religion to violate civil concord, dissemination of defamatory fabrications, and committing other acts against the established rules of behavior in society and public safety, as well as dissemination or demonstration of paraphernalia or symbols of religious-extremist, terrorist organizations." Observers, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), regarded this as a further move to suppress freedom of expression online.4

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

The government is known for its hostility toward its critics, including independent journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary internet users.1 Numerous individuals were arrested and convicted for their online activities during the coverage period. However, a number of activists and journalists who were serving prison sentences have been released during President Mirziyoyev’s term.

In April 2019, news outlets reported that religious bloggers Tulkin Astanov and Rustambek Karimov were detained by the SGB and charged with “possession of extremist materials” (under criminal code Article 244-1) allegedly found on their phones.2 Both were swept up in an earlier crackdown on Islamic commentators who criticized the government’s religious policy.3

At least nine bloggers were targeted during that crackdown, which followed their criticism of the August 2018 nationwide school dress code that effectively forbade girls from wearing hijabs in the classroom.4 Most were arrested, intimidated, and given 10-to-15-day prison sentences on petty charges, including hooliganism and resisting arrest. For example, in August, Tulkun Astanov was arrested and detained for 10 days on charges of “antisocial behavior” and “noncompliance with lawful orders” for criticizing the dress code change on social media.5 Upon his release, Astanov’s beard was shaven. The police subsequently banned him from using Facebook.

In May 2018, freelance journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev was released from prison after being sentenced to one-and-a-half years of community service; the state also withheld 20 percent of his earned wages.6 Abdullayev was detained in September 2017 and charged with allegedly authoring and disseminating “tendentious and slanderous materials” on the internet under the pseudonym “Usman Haknazar,” as well as recruiting individuals to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order. He has contributed to outlets such as Ozodlik, Fergana News, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and is a vocal critic of the government. Abdullayev alleged that he was tortured in detention (see C7).7

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 14

There is limited space for anonymous digital communication, and the government strictly regulates the use of encryption.1 Proxy servers and anonymizers are important tools for protecting privacy and accessing blocked content, although they require computer skills beyond the capacity of many ordinary users in Uzbekistan. In 2012, Uztelecom began blocking websites offering proxy services.

There are few options for posting anonymous comments online, as individuals are increasingly encouraged to register with their real names to participate in discussion forums such as Uforum,2 which is administered by the state-run Uzinfocom.3 Individuals must also provide passport information to buy a SIM card.4

Draft legislation introduced in August 2018, which would crack down on illegal VoIP services and the unauthorized use of protected Wi-Fi hotspots, led to rumors that using a VPN services were being criminalized.5 The MiTC vehemently denied the rumors, asserting that they stemmed from a misunderstanding of the legislation.6 In September 2018, Kun.uz instructed its readers on how to use VPNs to access blocked websites and other online resources.7

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 16

Government surveillance of ICTs is extensive. Although Article 27 of the constitution guarantees the privacy of “written communications and telephone conversations,” there is no data protection legislation in Uzbekistan.1 Article 27 also guarantees respect for human rights and the rule of law, though these rights are frequently violated during surveillance operations.

Police in Uzbekistan frequently confiscate computers, phones, and other internet-enabled devices when conducting arrests.2

Since 2006, the SGB has conducted electronic surveillance of the national telecommunications network by employing the Russia-designed System for Operational Investigative Measures (SORM), ostensibly to prevent terrorism and extremism.3

The Israeli branch of the US company Verint and the Israeli NICE supply Uzbekistan’s security services with monitoring centers, allowing them direct access to residents’ telephone calls and internet activity, according to the UK-based NGO Privacy International. Privacy International reported that Verint has also carried out tests on behalf of the SGB to gain access to SSL-encrypted communications, such as those now offered by default by Gmail, Facebook, and other service providers, by replacing security certificates with false ones using technology supplied by the US company Netronome.4 In 2015, documents leaked from the Italy-based surveillance software company Hacking Team revealed that NICE was supplying Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS) spyware to Uzbekistan.5 RCS can intercept user communications, remotely activate a phone’s microphone and camera, and access all content on a phone (including contacts and messages) without the user’s knowledge. Researchers from Kaspersky, a Russian-based cybersecurity firm, claimed that the security services have also used software from Germany’s FinFisher, which has exported spyware to a number of authoritarian countries around the world.6

In addition to purchasing spyware from foreign technology companies, the government is developing its own interception tools. Kaspersky identified one protocol for hacking into phones and computers called ‘Sharpa” in October 2018.7 The protocol was reportedly created by an entity linked to the SGB known as “Military Unit 02616.”

During the coverage period, the government continued discussions with Huawei on a proposed “safe city” project, which would feature networked CCTV surveillance in Tashkent, other major cities, and ultimately, the entire country.8 Just after the coverage period, in June 2019, the government formally contracted several Chinese companies to implement the project in Tashkent.9 Uzbekistan’s ICT sector is heavily reliant on Huawei,10 raising fears that Chinese surveillance could extend to the country. The government sometimes downplays this relationship, e.g., by identifying Huawei as a “long-term investor” but not a “strategic” partner.11

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 06

ISPs and mobile service providers must install SORM-compliant surveillance equipment on their networks in order to obtain an operating license.1 Telecommunications providers are prohibited by law from disclosing details on surveillance methods and face possible financial sanctions in addition to license revocation if they fail to design their networks to accommodate electronic interception.2

ISPs and mobile service providers are required to store user data for three months.3 Since 2004, operators of public internet access points are required to monitor their users and cooperate with state bodies. Under regulatory amendments introduced in 2014, operators of public access points must install surveillance cameras on their premises to “ensure [the] safety of visitors.” Additionally, they are required to retain a “registry of internet web resources” used by customers for three months.4

The law requires a prosecutor’s warrant for the interception of internet traffic by law enforcement bodies; however, in cases deemed urgent, the authorities may initiate surveillance and subsequently inform the prosecutor’s office within 24 hours.5

  • 1. Ibid, art. 5.8. Infra., note 110. Also, tax and custom exemptions apply for import of the SORM equipment by domestic ISPs, see Tax Code of RU, art. 208, 211, 230 part 2, and 269.
  • 2. http://lex.uz/acts/33150
  • 3. http://www.lex.uz/acts/771468
  • 4. See Resolution of the SCCITT RU, "О внесенииизменений и дополнений в Положение о порядкепредоставлениядоступа к сетиИнтернет в общественныхпунктахпользования [On making amendments and additions to the Regulations on the procedure for providing access to the Internet in the public areas of use]," March 19, 2014, No. 79-мх, SZRU (2014) NO. 13, item 150.
  • 5. Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers, "On the National Security Service of the Republic of Uzbekistan, " November 2, 1991, No. 278, at Part IV (3).

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

Activists, journalists, and ordinary internet users continue to face extralegal intimidation and violence in retribution for their online activities.

In March 2019, Nargiza Rakhimova, an official with the Press and Information Agency, was forced to leave her position after she posted a Facebook comment that referenced the Prophet Mohammed in a manner that some found insulting.1 Rakhimova and her family endured death threats online in retaliation for the comment, including from an apparent bot network.2

In November 2018, LifeUz.org, a website that some human rights defenders contend is a front for the SGB, published an article attempting to discredit exiled activist and blogger Nadejda Atayeva which featured a caricature her holding a sack of money.3

Several of the bloggers arrested and detained in August and September 2018 (see C3) were allegedly mistreated in custody, but these allegations have not been confirmed.

Freelance journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev claimed that he was tortured and subjected to ill-treatment during his detention, which began in 2017.4 Abdullayev reported that he was subjected to sleep deprivation, forced to remain naked in his cold cell for three days, denied food, and beaten by fellow inmates at the behest of SGB officers.5 He was released in May 2018.6 Following Abdullayev’s release, he was followed by SGB officers, and one of his torturers approached him in public, taunting him. Other dissidents reported similar harassment, as documented by the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights.7

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

No cyberattacks were reported in the media during the coverage period. However, the Canadian cyber-security company eQualit.ie reported that three websites it protects—Centre1, Eltuz, and Fergana News—sustained DDoS attacks in 2018 and 2019.1 The company also documented a phishing campaign against Uzbek human rights activists. It could not establish that the Uzbek government was behind these incidents.

In the past, human rights defenders and online journalists have reported attempts to compromise their online accounts. For example, Dmitry Tikhonov, an Uzbek human rights defender who had worked on a project documenting forced labor during the annual cotton harvest, found that private information from his email account and personal Google Drive had been published online. Authorities subsequently initiated administrative proceedings against Tikhonov based on the leaked information, forcing him to flee the country in early 2016.2

The state-run Information Security Center, established in 2013, ensures the security of “the national segment of the internet” and state information networks, including the e-governance infrastructure.3 The center collects and analyzes information on computer incidents, including distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and alerts internet users to security threats. Moreover, the center interacts with domestic ISPs, mobile phone operators, and state bodies—including law enforcement agencies—on the prevention and investigation of “unsanctioned or destructive actions in information space.”4

  • 1. https://equalit.ie/deflect-labs-report-6/
  • 2. Amnesty International, “We will find you, anywhere: the global shadow of Uzbekistani surveillance” March 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur62/5974/2017/en/
  • 3. Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of RU "О мерах по организации деятельности Центра развития системы Электорнное правительство и Ценра обеспечения информационной безопасности при Государственном комитетe связи, информатизации и коммуникационных технологий Республики Узбекистан" [On Measures Establishing the Development Centre on "E-governance" System and Cybersecurity Centre at the State Committee on the CITT], No. ПП-2058, September 16, 2013, SZRU (2013) No. 38, item 492, at Art. 3.
  • 4. See Criminal Code Article 278-1 "Violation of the Rules of Informatization"; Article 278-2 "Illegal (Unsanctioned) Access to Computer Information"; Article 278-3 "Production and Dissemination of Special Tools for Illegal (Unsanctioned) Access to Computer Information"; Article 278-4 "Modification of Computer Information"; and Article 278-5 "Computer Sabotage."

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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