Uzbekistan has the most severe restrictions on Internet use in Central Asia, according to a recent report on the state of Internet and politics in the country.

Online users self-censor, avoid political conversation, and face frequent service blackouts while activists and bloggers face crackdowns for their activity online. As new platforms and technologies, such as Facebook, become more popular in the country, the report highlights challenges and opportunities for activists and citizens alike, but also warns of the government’s ability to devise new ways to censor and monitor the activity of its citizens.

Uzbekistan is one of the most oppressive countries for online media and journalism in the world. In 2011, the country’s respect for freedom of the press was ranked 195 out of 197 inFreedom House’s report. State monitoring and control of the internet has increasedsignificantly since Uzbek web users first came online more than a decade ago. More recently, the Uzbek government has watched the Arab Spring’s embrace of technology with anxiety. Events in 2011 demonstrated that the Internet, mobile technology, and social media may have a capacity to speed up societal change – change that the government seeks to prevent.

The study, by American anthropologist Sarah Kendzior is the most comprehensive on this topic to date. It is highly readable, even for readers who do not know much about the region. It challenges a lot of preconceptions on the internet’s capacity to bring about social change, particularly in the context of an authoritarian regime. Uzbekistan’s online forums, blogs, and news sites are in line with the country’s political life at-large. Web users are subject to the same oppression online as on the streets. Furthermore, Kendzior concludes that Uzbeks self-censor in a sphere where anonymity is not a guarantee.

Under the pretext of protecting ‘national values’, Uzbekistan brought in laws restricting the online activity of its citizens, in particular following the 2005 Andijan massacre. Kendzior explores how the country’s near 8 million Internet users navigate a web monitored by the government, often from Internet cafés patrolled by security service agents. The Uzbek Internet is not a world unto its own; celebrity gossip sites are popular, Uzbeks are avid Facebook users the most popular blog largely consists of pictures of cats. The difference is Uzbekistan’s sophisticated – and slightly Orwellian – laws on Internet use, such a 2002 law that reserves the government the right to restrict internet access in order to protect individuals from, “negative informational psychological influence.” Many independent news sites are blocked, bloggers are subject to the same rules as print journalists, and the national security service has confiscated laptops at airports since 2011.

Finally, the report makes recommendations on how to support independent Uzbek online media. Through encouraging internet users to circumvent government monitoring, and working to establish safe, anonymous spaces for political discourse online, activists and journalists can further avoid government oppression. Furthermore, by preserving online media – such as blog posts and articles – and translating it into English and Russian, international observers will be able to better understand the situation, and perhaps the needs of Uzbek political activists.

This report is a fascinating take on the intersection of the internet and political life, that offers an academic – but jargon free – perspective into the challenges that activists, journalists, and media consumers, face in Central Asia.

Image courtesy Wikimedia commons. Creative Commons. Originally posted on NetProphet.

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