Free Speech Under Threat in Uzbekistan

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Oliy Majlis, the Parliament of Uzbekistan. 

Tashkent, Uzbekistan © 2019 Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Uzbekistan’s parliament is considering worrying amendments to the country’s Criminal and Administrative Codes, and to its Information Law, that could threaten the right to free speech.

On February 12, the head of the Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) party, Alisher Qodirov, whose party helped draft the bill, published excerpts of it and informed his Telegram channel subscribers that the bill had already been adopted in its first reading in parliament. A February 15 statement on the bill by the Oily Mazhlis, Uzbekistan’s parliament, provided some additional context, including that legislators want to increase sanctions for disseminating information that allegedly threatens state security.

Unacceptably, the draft law still hasn’t been published in full, so we don’t know what other provisions are in there. But looking at those parts which have been made public, there is good reason to be concerned.

One proposed amendment to the Information Law would prohibit bloggers and website owners from calling for participation in protests “in violation of the established order.” Another would punish the distribution of information “expressed in an indecent form that reflects disrespect for society, the state, state symbols (national and universal values),” and another would punish dissemination of false information that threatens public order and security.

Some of the proposed changes are so vaguely worded and broad, they would inevitably violate rights protected under international human rights law, including the right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

Uzbek lawmakers should remember that human rights law protects speech that offends, shocks, and disturbs, and that punitive, and in particular criminal measures, should only ever be used to restrict speech that promotes imminent violence or hostility.

Uzbekistan’s Justice Minister, Ruslanbek Davletov, this week called on Oily Mazhlis deputies to submit the draft law to the Justice Ministry for review and hinted that such laws should be published for discussion.

If Uzbekistan truly wants to join the ranks of rights-respecting countries, its leadership should reform its laws so they are compatible with international human rights norms and end the opaque and inaccessible process by which legislation currently gets adopted in the country.