Uzbekistan escalates pressures on US democracy organizations by filing criminal charges against Internews Network
Upping the stakes in a year-long campaign to limit the activities of western non-governmental democracy organizations, Uzbek authorities have brought criminal charges against Internews, a leading international media rights organization. Internews Network, a US based non-profit media organization, began operations in Uzbekistan in 1995 where it has helped develop Uzbekistan's independent, private television stations through trainings, technical assistance and support of local news and information programming.
On Monday the Uzbek government formally charged local Internews Network staff with conspiracy to engage in productions of videos and publications of informational materials without the necessary licenses. A former Internews director, and an Internews accountant, is charged with violating Article 190(2) b of the Uzbek criminal code - a crime punishable by up to six months in prison.
The charges follow a year of harassment and "fishing expeditions" by various branches of Uzbekistan's investigatory organs. In August Internews Network's bank accounts in the country were frozen. In September, three months before parliamentary elections, the court ordered the local office closed for six months.
Pressure on Internews and other democracy organizations escalated after popular uprisings in neighboring Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. A massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijan on May 13th brought demands by the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. government and others for an independent investigation. In spite of these appeals, pressures on international NGOs working in the country have only increased.
The investigations into alleged illegal activities by Internews have been riddled with procedural violations. Last week, investigators tried to force the two accused women to sign a dismissal of the case "without determination of guilt." The women agreed but the case was not closed.
In pursuing its case against Internews, the Ministry of Justice has demanded that Internews cease educating lawyers involved in the field of mass media, close down the activities of its Media Resource Center for Fergana Valley in the city of Namangan, stop publishing the periodicals Vestnik TV (TV News) and Erkin Soz (Freedom of Speech), and end production of two popular TV news programs.
The prosecution of Internews and its staff by the Ministry of Justice in Uzbekistan is at odds with a recent call by President Islam Karimov to "liberalize the activities" of the media and "provide them with independence and freedom".
Many of the most influential media professionals in Uzbek have been trained by Internews. Internews' projects in Uzbekistan have been supported by USAID and EuropeAid (the international aid branches of the US and EU, respectively) and the US State Department.