Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 August 2014, 14:32 GMT

Photographer who showed Uzbek reality to be tried for "insulting the people"

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 4 February 2010
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Photographer who showed Uzbek reality to be tried for "insulting the people", 4 February 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b7121298.html [accessed 27 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the upcoming trial of photographer and documentary film-maker 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.

Links:
 Watch Umida Akhmedova's documentary
 Sign the petition
 A statement by the OSCE

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