Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive countries in Central Asia and various NGOs have openly criticised the government for a number of years. The landlocked nation has been accused of various human rights violations from a plethora of fairly reliable sources but this is particularly true in terms of freedom of speech. However after years of meticulous censorship of all websites that could be seen as critical of the government, which has often resulted in blocking overseas-based news sites, it appears that the times are a changing.
According to Freedom House Uzbekistan operates the most extensive internet censorship programme in the world. Social media, political news, and blog posts are routinely scrutinised and often have their work blacklisted. Investigative journalists also allege that the Uzbek government intercept email communications to monitor any potential threats to the authority of the government. Since 2005 emails have systematically been blocked and ordinary citizens have been prohibited from viewing websites showing any form of criticism of the state, especially from sources outside of the country.
Despite this horrific record of censorship and other free speech violations the Uzbek government has apparently decided to do an about turn. Following the death of President Karimov in August there have been rumblings both inside and outside the country about what the future will hold. Evidently the Uzbek government is embarking of a series of reforms that will transform the country away from the apparatus of Karimov’s oppressive state.
As of 29th December a number of the website that have been prohibited in Uzbekistan- BBC, Ozodlik, EurasiaNet.org etc.- can now be viewed within the oppressive republic. Civil liberties organisations that outwardly critique the Uzbek government including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are also available inside the country.
But the thing that I find most interesting is that the website of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU) has also been unblocked. The PMU is a pro-democracy group that supports civil liberties and this is in stark contrast with the former Karimov government. Although Uzbekistan has a number of opposition parties, political figures are somewhat limited in their ability to criticise government policy. All voices that are willing to hold an oppressive government to account should be allowed a platform to speak the truth, and the fact that the Uzbek government has allowed people access to the PMU’s website shows that in the near future the country may well become a multi-party democracy.
Whenever people talk about technological advancements the story is often how they can be co-opted for nefarious ends, but this latest development out of Uzbekistan is important because it shows that authoritarianism is harder to sustain. Dissenting voices cannot be hidden from people in perpetuity and now that opponents of the Uzbek government can communicate with their fellow citizens the country looks like it will become more open in the near future. This has the potential to create a ripple effect across Central Asia which is a region that has had problems with civil liberties for decades. What follows out of Tashkent in the coming months shall be very interesting indeed.