Speech at the “Journalist 2013" Award Ceremony at the international organisation "Reporters Without Borders"
I am especially proud for Muhammad Bekjan. He has earned the recognition and respect of the international community. In 1990 Bekjan became chief editor of the "Erk" – a newspaper published by the first opposition political party "Erk"in Uzbekistan. From day one, this newspaper raised questions discussion of which in Uzbekistan is still prohibited. They are: privatisation of land, de-monopolisation of the economy, the abolition of forced labour, the causes of self-immolation of women, the consequences of the Aral Sea ecological disaster, etc.
Under the leadership of Muhammad Bekjan, a network of correspondents was created, which included not only famous writers and poets, scholars and human rights activists, but also ordinary residents of provinces of Uzbekistan. The newspaper unites people who believe in their ideas and gives an objective picture of events. It is known that the "Erk" newspaper is kept in many homes of ordinary Uzbeks for a number of years as proof that one can write about the truth openly!
An ordeal fell on Muhammad Bekjan. In February 1999, he was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. In 2003 the sentence was reduced by three years and eight months. In January 2012, a month before his release, he was again sentenced to imprisonment for 4 years and 8 months. In total, the term imposed on him is 19 years. Bekjan was twice convicted on trumped-up charges and repeatedly tortured. All these years he is detained in conditions amounting to torture. Muhammad Bekjan has been suffering from a severe form of tuberculosis for many years. But his access to medical care is limited; moreover, his diagnosis does not reflect the severity of the disease, so the limited treatment he is receiving is ineffective. The repressive system is damaging his health to intimidate all who wish to express their opinions openly.
Not everyone, under these conditions, can maintain independence and adhere to the principles of transparency and fairness. Muhammad Bekjan is undergoing these challenges with dignity. Being awarded the prize of a prestigious organisation as "Reporters without Borders" is a moral support not only for him, but also for his family and the readers of the newspaper "Erk". Bekjan’s case shows that freedom of speech is in danger and needs a support from the international community.
In Uzbekistan, besides Muhammad Bekjan, the following people are sentenced to lengthy prison terms:
— Yusuf Ruzimurdov, a correspondent of the “Erk” newspaper — sentenced to15 years;
— Dilmurad Sayid, a freelance journalist specialising in investigative journalism of corruption cases — sentenced to 12,5 years. He suffers from a severe form of TB;
— Gayrat Makhliboev, a correspondent of the “Huriyat” newspaper — sentenced to 12 years. He was tortured during the investigation of his case;
— Salijon Abdurakhmanov, a correspondent of the online publication “Uznews.net”— sentenced to 10 years. He is severely ill, if kept in custody any longer, this may result in irrecoverable damage to his health.
Khayrullo Hamidov, a sports commentator of the Uzbek television, journalist of the “Chamrion” newspaper, radio “Navruz” and Ravshanbek Vafoev, Botirbek Eshkuziev, Bahrom Ibragimov, Davron Kabilov, correspondents of a religious newspaper “Irmok”, are still in custody.
Many independent journalists are forced to leave Uzbekistan threatened with arrest for criminal cases.
Recent emigration of Elena Bondar received a wide publicity. In September 2013, a freelance reporter of "Ferghana.Ru", Sergei Naumov was arrested for 12 days on an absurd and false administrative proceeding. He served his sentence in heavy sanitary conditions and had to undergo a treatment for two months.
In Uzbekistan, there are no independent media, because Uzbek authorities have established a system of suppression of freedom of speech. After the Andijan tragedy European and American media lost their accreditation; the citizens of Uzbekistan cooperating with the Western media are brought under a total control. Even those who are officially working for the Uzbek services of BBC and "Radio Liberty" in the European countries are not always able to visit their family in Uzbekistan. There are cases when the Uzbek TV proclaimed them "detractors of the Motherland" or "enemies of the people”.
I believe that giving this prestigious award to Muhammad Bekjan will resonates with all people of good will and give a new impetus to the struggle for his and other journalist’s liberation.