Journalist charged with defaming Uzbeks, faces 8 years jail
New York, January 22, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the Uzbek authorities to immediately drop all charges against Umida Akhmedova, a prominent photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who covers gender, ethnic, and cultural issues, and allow her to continue to do her work without fear of reprisal.
On January 13, investigators with the city police department in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, criminally charged Akhmedova with insulting and libeling the Uzbek people and its traditions through her work, according to international news reports. On Thursday, investigators informed Akhmedova’s lawyer that they had concluded their probe and the case will be transferred to court in the next few days, Akhmedova told CPJ. If convicted on both charges, she could serve up to eight years in jail. Akhmedova is prohibited from leaving the country, she told CPJ.
According to the independent regional news Web site Ferghana, the charges stem from a 2007 album of photographs depicting life in Uzbek villages and a 2008 documentary on the traditional ban on premarital sex. Both were produced with support by the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent, Akhmedova told CPJ. In the album, titled “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk,” Akhmedova showed men, women, and children in their daily routine and during traditional rituals. Her documentary—The Burden of Virginity—criticizes the pressure on young women in Uzbekistan to practice abstinence until marriage.
“We call on the authorities in Tashkent to drop the absurd charges against Umida Akhmedova at once,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “It is unthinkable that a documentarian should go to prison because the state interprets her work as insulting.”
The indictment, obtained by CPJ, and signed by Tashkent police investigator K. Kh. Akbarov, said that results of a “complex expert review” of Akhmedova’s work revealed that “with her unscientific, unsound, and inappropriate comments, which contain hidden implications, are directed at discrediting values and traditions of our people, and hold negative information that can affect moral and psychological conditions of the youth”—she insulted “traditions of the Uzbek people, which is viewed as defamation, scornful, and disrespectful attitude towards national traditions.”
According to Ferghana, in mid-November, Akhmedova learned that a criminal case concerning her work was filed by Uzbekistan’s State Agency for Press and Information, a government media regulator. Investigator Nodir Akhmadzhanov with the Mirabad District Police Department in Tashkent called and asked her to come and testify as a witness in the case. After the visit, Akhmedova told Ferghana she was perplexed at the authorities’ claims. She said Akhmadzhanov was unable to answer her question how the visual depiction of traditions could defame an entire nation. A month later, the same investigator told Akhmedova that, as an author of the documentary and album, she was no longer a witness in the criminal case but has been upgraded to a suspect; he suggested that she seek a lawyer, Ferghana reported.
In their conclusion, the state-sponsored panel of experts who reviewed Akhmedova’s work said it left a negative impression on viewers unfamiliar with Uzbek traditions, Ferghana reported: “Looking at the pictures, a foreigner who had not seen Uzbekistan comes to the conclusion that this is a country where people live in the Middle Ages. The author intentionally focuses on life’s hardships.”
Akhmedova deems the charges against her unsubstantiated but told CPJ she feared for her subjects. “I am not scared of being prosecuted but hope they will spare the people I have documented and worked with,” Akhmedova told CPJ.
Akhmedova is the author of several documentaries on Uzbekistan; her photos have been shown in exhibitions at home and abroad. She is the first female documentary filmmaker in Uzbekistan, the regional press reported. See a slide show of her work on the CPJ Blog.
Photographer who showed Uzbek reality to be tried for “insulting the people”
Reporters Without Borders condemns the upcoming trial of photographer and documentary filmmaker Umida Akhmedova as an absurd and flagrant violation of free expression that is all the more disturbing for having unleashed an all-out campaign of nationalist and conservative hysteria.
Two months after being summoned for the first time to a Tashkent police station, Akhmedova was officially notified on 23 January that the authorities had completed their investigation and would soon try her in connection with her work showing women and poverty in Uzbekistan. She is accused of slandering and insulting the Uzkbek people under articles 139 and 140 of the criminal code – charges that carry a maximum sentence of three years in jail.
The authorities have focused on her documentary “The Burden of Virginity” and a collection of 100 photos called “Woman and Man: From Dawn till Night.” Showing individuals and scenes from daily life, the book was published in 2007 with support from the Swiss embassy’s gender equality programme.
“This is the first time in Uzbekistan that a documentary filmmaker is going to be tried for films and photographs which, furthermore, are about subjects that are not political but social and ethnographic,” freelance journalist Aleksey Volosevich wrote in a recent article.
The prosecution case file includes the supposedly “scientific” analysis of Akhmedova’s photographs that a group of “experts” released on 13 January. In Soviet-era prose, the report accuses her of presenting a deliberately distorted picture of Uzbekistan that emphasizes the negative aspects.
Reporters Without Borders is amazed by the absurdity and bad faith of the report’s arguments: “Ninety percent of the photos were taken in isolated and under-developed Uzbek villages (…) Why does she not show nice places, modern buildings or prosperous villages?” At another point, Akhmedova is accused of “trying to portray Uzbek women as victims (…) giving the impression that Uzbekistan does nothing but housework (…) describing Uzbeks as barbarians.”
The persecution of Akhmedova was taken to a new stage by the “Current Affair” talk-show on the main public TV station two evenings ago. After screening extracts from her documentary, the programme showed guests denigrating her work and calling for her to be given the severest sentence for “offending the national traditions and sentiments of the Uzbek people.” Quoting President Islam Karimov at length, participants also described her work as part of “an information war waged against the country.”
Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, a nationalist rhetoric glorifying an identity based on myths and traditions has been used instead of a communist discourse to legitimise President Karimov’s autocratic regime.
No discussion of the country’s social problems is permitted and the regime seems to be using Akhmedova as a scapegoat to whip up paranoia and perhaps to appease a conservative and religious segment of the population which is itself persecuted. By branding Akhmedova as agent of destabilisation in foreign pay, the authorities are making it clear that any debate about Uzbek society is unthinkable.
Nonetheless, civil society exasperation with the repeated attacks on civil liberties has begun to make itself felt in an unprecedented manner for a country that is such a police state (see this RFE/RL report on the reactions to journalist Khayrullo Khamidov’s arrest). In Akhmedova’s case, a broad campaign of support is under way and a petition has been launched on her behalf that has been relayed by the Ferghana.ru news agency, Radio Free Europe and many international NGOs.
The International Association of Art Critics has appealed to the Uzbek authorities to acquit Akhmedova while art critics in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have even issued a scathing alternative report disputing the findings of the official “expert” report and ironically calling for its authors to be tried for “lack of professionalism, incompetence (…) and ignorance, liable to discredit the Uzbek justice system.”
In a recent charm offensive targeted at the international community, President Karimov said he was determined to promote democratisation and went to so far as to criticise the “compliant” parliament and the “tame” press. It is time for him to turn these words into actions.
Photographs © Umida Akhmedova