FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN SOCIETY: MODERN TRENDS AND REALITIES
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“Of course, many local officials do not like sharp and critical content [in the press]. They disrupt their peaceful and carefree existence. But openness and freedom of speech are the demand of the times, the demand of the reforms in Uzbekistan.”
President of the Republic of Uzbekistan
In a society where freedom of speech and press is not ensured, there is no chance for the development of mass media, as freedom of speech and press is one of the main conditions for democratic development and formation of civil society. Thus, freedom of speech and press is the “cardiovascular” system of democracy.
Article 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan provides that everyone`s right to freedom of thought and speech shall be considered as his/her personal rights, which was implemented into the practice by the Laws “On guarantees and freedoms of information”, “On principles and guarantees of information freedoms”, “On protection of journalistic activities”, “On mass media”, “On openness of activities of state authorities and management bodies” and many others. Thus, more than 10 laws and more than 100 legal acts have been adopted aimed at developing mass media, publishing and printing and strengthening freedom of speech and information.
Unfortunately, keeping the state at a distance from freedom of speech and press for years has left its “results”. Uzbekistan was listed among states with the lowest rating of freedom of speech, transparency and human rights. Serious disparities between real and posted statistics, forceful concealment of facts (forced labor, cotton monopoly, deplorable state of human rights, impoverishment of the population, etc.), attempts to hinder press` efforts to highlight facts have altogether resulted in Uzbekistan being considered as authoritarian state with no freedom of speech and trade. This even resulted in adopting restrictions on the trade with Uzbek nation`s wealth and pride – Uzbek cotton. From the first days of presidentship, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, feeling that the situation was approaching the “red line” and being aware of possible consequences of such situation, had paid a great attention to the development of the freedom of speech. As a result, press and mass media started obtaining freedom.
How can we feel those changes? In the past 4-5 years, independent national Internet publications able to attract millions of audiences have been formed. Many private TV and radio channels have been launched. If in 2019 there were 559 sources of information services in state and non-state organizations - official websites, channels on social networks - by the end of 2021, this number reached 2410. The practice of immediate reaction by the ministries and other government agencies to critical statements of mass media representatives, including bloggers, have been launched. The increase of the response rate by government agencies to critical materials from 12% in 2018 to almost 90% in 2020 and almost 100% in 2021 can serve as a confirmation to the above.
A group of bloggers, which is not afraid of revealing problems with a number of followers more than that of some official publication, has appeared in Uzbekistan. Noteworthy that in the 2000s, journalists used to be pressurized and banned for telling the truth, but today, a blogger, who reveals problems and issues is being rewarded by the state. Now, the journalistic investigations of problems are not being prosecuted or punished. It has become natural for a journalist or blogger to hold a microphone and appear in front of a minister or a senior official asking them questions. Noteworthy that that the leader, who once did not want to face the press and was afraid of it, has also developed the skill of communicating with the media. The principle of openness and transparency of state agencies has been established not on paper, but in reality. It will not be an exaggeration to say that covering the activities of ministries, committees, hokims and law-enforcement agencies through the websites of these organizations or other social networks has become part of normal daily work.
Ensuring implementation of the constitutional rights of citizens on freedom of speech and information, developing the media sector, strengthening the role of the mass media in the socio-political and socio-economic spheres of the state were identified as main directions of the state policy. In particular, by the Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan No. PF-4947 dated February 7, 2017, the “Strategy of Actions on the five priority directions of the development of the Republic of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021” highlighted strengthening the role of mass media as a priority direction of development of the state. As part of the action strategy, the decrees of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan from August 11, 2017 “On further improvement of management in the press and information sector”, from February 2, 2019 “On additional measures for the further development of the information sector and mass communications”, from August 9, 2017 “On the establishment of the public fund “Ilkhom” to support the creators of Uzbekistan”, from August 10, 2017 “On measures to further develop the activities of the Creative Union of Journalists of Uzbekistan”, from August 15 “On additional measures to further develop the activities of cultural and art organizations, creative associations and mass media, and to stimulate the work of industry employees” have become an important step towards development of mass media.
The major reforms carried out in the field are aimed at ensuring implementation of the constitutional rights of citizens on freedom of speech and information, strengthening the role of mass media in this regard, creating equal conditions for them in the media market, protecting the rights of journalists, developing state support mechanisms for the development of printing and information-library activities. In order to systematize application of legislation in the field of information, promote and develop projects of normative legal documents aimed at the development of mass media, press, publishing-press and information-library activities, a special agency – the Center for Mass Communication Issues of the Information and Mass Communication Agency was established within the structure of the Administration of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of the former Center of the Press and Information Agency of Uzbekistan.
It should be noted separately that within the framework of the Strategy of Actions, the legal framework for media liberalization and freedom of speech was improved in Uzbekistan, and 12 legal documents were adopted in the last five years. In particular, by the Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan No. 476 from April 18, 2018, a separate Article 51 entitled “State support of mass media” was added to the Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan “On Mass Media”. According to the article, mass media should be provided with benefits and preferences in terms of taxes and other mandatory payments and tariffs, financial support through the system of state subsidies and state grants. In addition, according to the Article 19 of the Law, the period of state registration of mass media was reduced from one month to fifteen days. Additionally, if previous edition of the Article 22 of the law stated the decision of refusal to register of mass media could be appealed only to the court, now, a special review mechanism has been introduced in order to investigate the reasons of refusal.
The adoption of these documents has become a real reason for fundamental changes in the field. In some sense, the goals have been achieved to some extent. In particular, compared to 1991, number of mass media in our state has increased by 4 times, publishing houses by 13 times, and printing companies by 12 times, and their material and technical base and human resources have significantly improved.
As one of the bright results of the reforms in the field, the International Press Club was established in our country, its format and working method was a novelty for our national media environment, and it attracted attention and trust of not only journalists, but also the general public. Another noteworthy event has become establishment of the Information and Mass Communications Agency under the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Uzbekistan on the basis of the Press and Information Agency of Uzbekistan in order to effectively implement the state policy in the field of information in new conditions. This agency is responsible for a number of tasks aimed at coordinating media activities, protecting the rights and interests of journalists, strengthening cooperation with foreign media companies, creating opportunities of full use of foreign web resources and sites, telling shortly, ensuring the diversity of opinions in the information field. After the establishment of the Agency, great importance was attached to the incorporation of information services in all government agencies. This entails that more than a thousand information services are operating today. This is due to the fact that unless openness and transparency do not start from the highest point, the expected results will not be achieved. There is a great need for timely delivery of decisions and decrees, legislative documents to the population for the benefit of society and people. This, in turn, leads to situation of spreading of biased and incorrect information by unreliable sources.
As one of the latest steps taken in the development of the media sector, the decision of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan No. 294 dated June 28, 2022 "On measures to support mass media and develop the field of journalism" can be recognized.
This document was adopted in order to implement the development strategy of New Uzbekistan, as well as to strengthen the protection of legal interests of mass media and to develop the field of journalism. It defines a number of tasks related to the support of mass media, electronic and printed publications.
At this point, it is necessary to emphasize that law enforcement agencies also have an important role in ensuring freedom of press and speech in Uzbekistan. The release of a number of journalists and bloggers, who were imprisoned for different periods of time or involved in the investigation process until 2017-2018, or the termination of investigative actions against them, indicates a sharp change in the attitude towards free thinkers in the society. Another noteworthy point is that public coverage of the achievements and shortcomings in the field with the efforts of the press services of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor’s Office and the judicial system makes its due contribution to ensuring freedom of speech.
In order to continue the reforms in this field more consistently, the new “Development Strategy of Uzbekistan for 2022-2026” has put forward other important tasks such as building a people-friendly state by increasing human dignity and further developing a free civil society, further strengthening of the role of mass media and protection of professional activities of journalists, taking measures to provide additional support by the state to the mass media that are operating and covering state policy in the field of inter-ethnic relations, illegal interference and obstruction in the media’s activities, further strengthening of liability pressurizing or confiscating illegally materials or documents from media representatives, and creating an international “Media Forum” with the participation of foreign and national journalists and experts.
In conclusion, in the Republic of Uzbekistan, significant work is being done to ensure freedom of speech, to reorganize the system of the information and mass communications sector, and to increase the role of mass media in solving the problematic issues of socio-political and socio-economic development.