Is Uzbekistan opening? Tashkent will host OSCE Central Asia media conference
The 19th Central Asia media conference named “Open Journalism in Central Asia” organised by the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media will be held in Tashkent on 18-19 October 2017. It is expected that participants, “including journalists, representatives from governments, civil society organisations and academia from Central Asia and Mongolia along with international experts will discuss current challenges to media freedom in Central Asia and Mongolia” including “current trends in news media distribution and challenges related to the digital and increasingly mobile environment, and how to better safeguard media freedom whilst combatting hate speech,” as well as “the latest media freedom developments and best practices,” the OSCE website informs.
The first OSCE conference in Central Asia was held in Bishkek in October 1999. This forum is almost the only regional initiative in which journalists and publishers, experts, as well as representatives of the authorities, and academia of the region come together to openly discuss the state of freedom of speech in their countries. The conference is held annually, the venue is determined, as a rule, on a rotational basis, it was held in all capitals of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and in Mongolia. The last conference was hosted by Vienna.
A pause of fifteen years
The last OSCE media conference in Tashkent was held in 2002 (the topic - Freedom of Media and Corruption). The then representative of the OSCE, the famous German human rights activist Freimut Duve, opened the conference fifteen years ago. But the next two commissioners on media freedom, Miklós Haraszti and Dunja Mijatović, could not manage to organise something like this in Tashkent. According to Fergana, the new head of the OSCE media office in August this year will be the French Socialist politician Harlem Désir, who will hold this high-profile event.
There have always been problems with the organisation of the OSCE media conference in the countries of Central Asia. So, in 2016 this meeting was held in Austria for one reason only: the foreign ministries of all post-Soviet countries of the region refused to host guests. Due to the general downgrading of OSCE status in Bishkek and Dushanbe, this fact could generally mean the beginning of the end of active cooperation with Europe. But in December 2016 official Tashkent unexpectedly told European partners that it is ready to provide its platform to talk about freedom of speech.
What is the “sign” of the event?
The very fact of holding a conference in Tashkent raises many questions. Whether Uzbekistan authorities becoming more open, or it is just a game designed to demonstrate the “reformist” nature of the new president and his team? Can the conference on media freedom take place in a country where there still the state censorship and the blocking of independent information websites persist, and where several journalists are still in prison? And if it is possible, then how much informal will the communication between the participants be, without the state frames?
It is obvious that the new president of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev is trying to do everything possible to restore good relations with regional and international organisations and institutions ruined during the era of his predecessor. Today he is equally active in the country - he created “virtual offices,” conducts a showy change of the team for a younger one - and in the international space. Dozens of diplomats, representatives of international financial institutions visited the country for the past few months, and now the country is hosting a delegation of the European Union led by the Director-General for International Development and Cooperation of the European Commission.
All these events inspire both the people starving the justice and external observers seeing Shavkat Mirziyoyev as almost a revolutionary opposing the reactionary forces. And although specialists in the region find it difficult to imagine that President Mirziyoyev is building a fire under himself after many years during the time of Islam Karimov, romantic hopes for change overwhelm them today.
Will there be freedom?
Almost everyone, if I can say so, “web-Uzbekistan” lives today in social networks and messengers. The censorship that lasted earlier becomes impossible in the conditions of modern technological progress. Undoubtedly, even the country's official media, mostly those that broadcast online, have become much more relaxed in recent months. There is a rapid growth of the “news” product, although serious analysis of the economic and political processes in the country, it seems, is still anticipated.
Unequivocally, the next international event will be collected as the achievement of the new Uzbek government. But will Central Asia journalists, who so rarely meet each other, manage to communicate normally and without hindrance? Will the Uzbek Foreign Ministry agree with the composition of the participants, what OSCE will propose? Would the loud international event overshadow the same loud prohibitions on entry for foreign journalists and scientists that happened earlier?
Will President Mirziyoyev open the OSCE Centre in Tashkent which was closed in the years of his premiership in 2006, and will he return the authority of the organisation? The conference for journalists is good, but it will last only two or three days after which everything will remain the same. But will the authorities of Uzbekistan take a real change in the status of this organisation in the country?
In general, a lot will depend on the answers to these questions. The OSCE conference in Tashkent may turn out to be an empty sham event, necessary for the authorities of this Central Asia country only to whitewash its image. But it can also become almost a turning point in the development of the new Uzbekistan which is transforming from an inert and authoritarian country into a democracy of a more or less modern type.
Of course, let's hope for the second.