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Empowering Democracy: Protecting Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity in Uzbekistan

Freedom of speech, opinion and information is a fundamental human right. According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers – writes Azamjon Farmonov, Head of the public association “Legal Support” in Human Rights of Uzbekistan.

In addition, Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, noted that without free speech and reliable information, the rules of democracy and public trust will continue to crumble. In this regard, the role of the media is increasingly important, since free and independent media play a crucial role in ensuring democratic changes.

Uzbekistan is actively cooperating with international partners with the aim to strengthening freedom of the media, enhancing the civic responsibility and moral courage of journalists, and strengthening human rights activities. An important step was securing a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2021-2023. The government has also hosted prestigious international events such as the 2018 Asian Human Rights Forum, the 2019 workshop of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights, the 2020 Samarkand Human Rights Forum, and the 2022 Global Forum on Human Rights Education.

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According to the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index report, Uzbekistan ranked 137th out of 180 countries with a rating of 45,73. The lack of private television networks has been named as one of the shortcomings for the country’s low ranks, yet Uzbekistan has more than 40 non-state television channels.

Uzbekistan puts a great emphasis on freedom of speech, information and the press. As the President of Uzbekistan said, “Of course, sharp and critical materials do not please many officials on the ground, disturb their calm life. But glasnost and freedom of speech is a requirement of the time, a requirement of reforms in Uzbekistan.” The President also highlighted the principles underlying the country’s media liberalization policy, emphasizing their enhanced role in addressing social problems. The Presidential Decree “On the Strategy of Development of New Uzbekistan for 2022-2026,” signed on January 28, 2022, attests to this.

In Uzbekistan, the fundamental principle “the individual – society – the State” underpins democratic reforms to strengthen constitutional guarantees of human rights. Of the 65 amended and supplemented articles of the Constitution, 16 are devoted to the protection of fundamental human freedoms. The revised Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and information in three different ways. The first is the expansion of freedom to seek, receive and disseminate information; the second is the further strengthening of media freedom; and the third has been guaranteed in the form of granting the media constitutional status as one of the main institutions of civil society.

The first part of Article 69 of the new Constitution states, “Civil society institutions, including public associations and other non-governmental non-profit organizations, citizens’ self-governance bodies and the mass media, form the basis of civil society.”

As stated in the new Constitution, the elevation of the media to constitutional status as a fundamental institution of civil society strengthens the legal framework. This improvement, on the one hand, contributes to a more genuine, impartial and fairer structure of public oversight. On the other hand, it acts as a safeguard against the unwarranted concealment of information on violations and shortcomings that are revealed as a result of public scrutiny.

The fact that the Constitution for the first time includes a separate chapter on civil society institutions and establishes guarantees for their functioning provides a legal basis for ensuring an open, transparent and legitimate society, strengthening the links between the State and society and establishing strict public control.

Article 81 of the new Constitution states, “The mass media shall be free and shall operate in accordance with the law. The State shall guarantee the freedom of activity of the mass media and their right to seek, receive, use and disseminate information. The mass media are responsible for the accuracy of the information they provide.”

The recently revised Constitution provides ample opportunities and protection for the media and civil society institutions to become more active. The freedom of the media and their right to seek, receive, use and disseminate information are strictly guaranteed. The purpose of these norms is to create the most favorable conditions for the media and to establish a practical dialog between the state and society. Similar norms exist in the constitutions of a number of countries, such as Slovakia, South Korea and Spain.

Article 82 of the new Constitution states: “Censorship is not permissible. Obstruction or interference with the media grounds for liability under the law.”

This norm ensures that the media and journalists can operate safely without fear of administrative pressure. It also creates conditions for an open and transparent society.

In addition, according a study by the United Nationsy, 59 percent of regular Internet and social media users in 142 countries worldwide expressed concern about the spread of misinformation in the digital space. Secretary-General António Guterres, who raised the issue, stated that the international community must fight the spread of hatred and misinformation in the digital space. The Secretary General proposed the development of a code of ethics to ensure the ethical nature of information on digital platforms.

Article 33 of the Constitution states: “Restriction of the right to seek, receive and disseminate information shall be prohibited only in accordance with the law and only for the protection of the constitutional order, public health, public morals, rights and freedoms of others, public security and public order, as well as disclosure of state secrets or other secrets protected by law will be permitted to the extent necessary for the purposes of prevention.”

From this point of view, Uzbekistan, along with most countries building a democratic State governed by the rule of law and an honest open society in the modern digital age, has enshrined in its Constitution new norms concerning freedom of thought, speech and the press.

Undoubtedly, freedom of speech, opinion and information, as well as the unrestricted expression of the will of citizens, freedom of the media and transparency of State institutions have become key benchmarks for assessing Uzbekistan’s progress. These elements not only contribute to the creation of conditions for unrestricted expression of opinions  in the country, but also require a deep understanding of social responsibility on the part of the media.

Azamjon Farmonov,

Head of the public association “Legal support” in

human rights of Uzbekistan.

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