Friday, February 25, 2011

Uzbekistan: Authorities Spooked by Web Interest in Arab Protests

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

By News Briefing Central Asia - News Briefing Central Asia

Internet users in Uzbekistan say access to popular sites has been reduced since a flurry of debates began on the wave of Middle Eastern protests

They date the restrictions to early February, when Uzbek users of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Livejournal began discussing the Middle Eastern protests, linking to full-text reports on others’ pages, and adding their own comments.

The blocks imposed by the authorities are partial – Facebook and the like are still available in principle, but any pages where news from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya is posted do not load.

"Social networks started being blocked after the unrest in Egypt became more marked," a local blogger said. "There’s still access to Facebook, but if you are using your page to connect to banned websites, it won't open."

He was referring to foreign sites that are blocked in Uzbekistan like those of the BBC, RFE/RL, Voice of America,, Uznews, the Memorial human rights group and the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The non-government Expert Working Group in Tashkent says the general tone of Uzbek web debates on Egypt was one of solidarity with those protesting against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Uzbek official statistics indicate that there are seven million internet users in the country, while a survey by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service this month showed that Facebook had 55,000 registered users from Uzbekistan. Fewer than 1,000 people in the country use Twitter.

A Tashkent resident who uses the web forum site described how the Uzbek security service monitors local users.

"The National Security Service tracks people’s IP addresses, blocks their pages on popular social networking sites, and then call them in and have a conversation where they order them to stop visiting these sites," he said.

Access to was blocked temporarily around the middle of February, and once it was restored, users found they could no longer see the popular sections where visitors used to share views on events at home and abroad.

Another Tashkent resident who is a keen user of social networking sites was in no doubt that the internet blocks had been imposed as a way of censoring debate on the mass protests across the Arab world.

The authorities now find themselves with a dilemma – on the one hand, they want to block reporting on protests against corrupt and authoritarian regimes, but on the other, they are keen to persuade the international community that they are opening up access to information.

As one local journalist put it, "They just cannot shut off the virtual sphere.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.