BBC Closes Tashkent Office

by Nathan Hamm on 10/26/2005 · 26 comments

A few people have sent me links about the closure of the BBC’s Tashkent office.

BBC World Service’s office in Tashkent is being suspended and all local staff withdrawn with immediate effect, it was announced today.

The office will remain closed for at least six months pending a decision on its long-term future.

“We’re doing this because of concerns over security,” said World Service Regional Head, Behrouz Afagh.

“Over the past four months, since the unrest in Andijan, BBC staff in Uzbekistan have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation which has made it very difficult for them to report on events in the country.”

Monica Whitlock left in June and six other BBC employees have left due to threats and intimidation. If the numbers get any higher, we may legitimately be able to start speaking of the Uzbek Journalism Diaspora.

The Uzbek government, convinced the foreign press tried to help install a caliphate in Uzbekistan, is going to great lengths to keep everyone but its Durantys (assuming it has any) from reporting from the country.

Ben has a little more.


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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 26 comments }

Andy October 26, 2005 at 11:46 pm

This is worrying. The BBC World Service has just decided to close about 10 language services, so that it can re-allocate the funding to a new arabic language channel to go head to head with al-jazeera.

Uzbekistan isn’t on that list – it’s mostly Eastern European countries like Poland, who have now joined the EU – but with the World Service scrambling for cash, if the Uzbekistan service closes even temporarily, the chances of it coming back must be reduced.

Denzil Uz October 27, 2005 at 12:37 am

…and not only Eastern European – Kazakh service to be closed too. Probably the real reason of closing the Tashkent office is the financial one – BBC worked and works in many much more dangerous places, especially regarding the Arab world..

Peter October 27, 2005 at 4:48 am

This is hardly surprising as the main thrust of the opposition’s arguments in the Andijan trial are based around the notion that the BBC may have materially contributed to the disturbances. By doing this they have ensured that journalist prosecution can be carried out by proxy, allowing any troublemaker with some initiative to threaten and hinder the work of BBC journalists.
In the long term,the BBC will be back, conditions permitting. It was a shame to see the Kazakh service go, but it is likely that those users of that service may simply switch to the Russian alternative. Moreover, since the principle underlying the foreign services’ existence in the first place was the lack of press freedom in those countries where they operated, it could have been argued that Kazakhstan has reached a satisfactory degree of media diversity. If it transpires, however, that the Almaty office is to be shut down before the December election, one would have to wonder if they needed their heads looking at.

Peter October 27, 2005 at 4:54 am

CORRECTION: “the main thrust of the prosecution’s arguments”

Uzbek October 27, 2005 at 7:11 am

If anyone has a doubt as to real reasons why the BBC is suspending its newsgathering operations in Uzbekistan I would recommend to carefully read the words of the regional head Behrouz Afagh – “Over the past four months since the unrest in Andijan, BBC staff in Uzbekistan have been subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation which has made it very difficult for them to report on events in the country”.
The crucial difference between the case with Uzbekistan and the fact of BBC journalists and reporters working in Arab world or in any other country of the world is the fact that in these countries the government did not openly state that BBC was involved in the perpetration of a terrorist act, and as such that it is not welcome in the state anymore and as a result the staff of the BBC will be prosecute by any means under the state’s disposal. Even in Israel, the government has always stated the bias in the reporting of the BBC but has never alleged anything as is the case in Uzbekistan.
One country that in any way close to Uzbekistan in its treatment of BBC is Zimbabwe and we all know the reasons for it.
The situation of Uzbekistan is the same, unfortunately with its own Mugabe.

Denzil Uz October 27, 2005 at 7:46 am

Hm, in fact, the long history of BBC foreign service contains a lot of accusations on clandestine activity, including espionage and involvement in subversive operations, especially in the Middle East. I hope we’re not childlike idealistic here about the range of the tasks of any serious foreign media service of any serious state?!
Peter probably right noting about the fear of possible proximity of legal prosecution as the important motive behind office closing. Although I’m somehow sure that such thrusts wouldn’t go so far. At the same time, question is: does belonging to the media automatically gives criminal immunity?

Nathan October 27, 2005 at 8:12 am

It doesn’t give criminal immunity, but it should give them immunity from reprisal and phony criminal accusations for reporting the news.

Uzbekistan’s governments (now, under the Soviets, and before) have a long history of making up charges and cruelly punishing those who disagree with them. I hope we’re not being childishly idealistic about them.

Uzbek October 27, 2005 at 9:48 am

Thank You Nathan!!!

Brian October 27, 2005 at 9:53 am

I think the story is pretty genuine. Given the excellent stories that have been produced by BBC Uzbekistan over the past several months, now would be a strange time for BBC to close its Tashkent office because of money reasons… especially because the future of Uzbekistan may contain even more dramatic news stories in the future, unfortunately.

David October 27, 2005 at 10:08 am

Of course, Denzil Uz must be joking when he suggests that this is somehow a financial decision. The Tashkent bureau must be about the cheapest BBC outlet in the world. As Uzbek says, it is directly comparable to the situation in Zimbabwe, although perhaps things are slightly worse in Uzbekistan given the lack of independent local media – RSF rates them about the same, with Uzbekistan fractionally lower.

I am surprised to see that the kazakh service might close – i hope this is not another part of what seems to me a slightly worrying trend – to consider kazakhstan as a flourishing democracy simply because it is better than its southern neighbour. RSF rate them at 119 in the world, by the way. Other ratings (including a way inflated rating for tajikistan) at http://www.rsf.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=554

Disillusioned kid October 27, 2005 at 2:03 pm

“The Uzbek government, convinced the foreign press tried to help install a caliphate in Uzbekistan…”

Do you think they *really* believe this? I’m as yet undecided. There’s no doubt it’s the line they’re pushing and its pretty convenient for them, but this doesn’t equate with belief.

Nathan October 27, 2005 at 7:01 pm

I want to say no, they couldn’t possibly. But there are simply too many historical cases confirming that dictators believe their own hype. The underlings might not, but they have strong reason to maintain the belief of the higher-ups.

Denzil Uz October 27, 2005 at 9:30 pm

Nathan, any concrete facts of prosecution of foreign journalists in Uzbekistan (now and under Soviets)?

Nathan October 27, 2005 at 9:32 pm

In re: this comment posted to the wrong thread

I never said “foreign.” I said “journalists.” So yes, I can name a couple off the top of my head: Ruslan Sharipov went to prison on charges unrelated to his true offense, criticizing the government; and, Bukharbaeva has charges waiting for her.

Why not foreign ones? Well, if you’re going to dance around and deny that the government puts the screws to journalists unfairly, please excuse me for cutting to the quick. I think the government lacks the testicular fortitude to prosecute a foreign journalist. They’ll “suggest” it’s not safe to be in the country, break into homes, follow people around, wait outside their homes, listen to their phone calls, denounce them on tv and in print next to pictures of the offending enemies of the people, pressure their neighbors, and hold them at the border for days on end. But prosecute them? That’s too direct.

Denzil Uz October 27, 2005 at 10:05 pm

No dances, Nathan. Just specifying questions. By now its clear that no foreign journalist was prosecuted or even legally charged (while). I agree that there’re prosecutions against local journalist (as recently “local” NYT case in the US, btw). I agree that journalist are the subject of constant hazard and risk (again, as everywhere and people do realize it choosing this profession). As for Sharipov’s case specifically – I guess pedophilia (he was charged not only for homosexuality) is a serious crime in any state. And to be more even specific – he never ever was a professional journalist (no education and official media-outlet, just few internet-appearances criticizing local militia for dealing with prostitutes).
NB – I’m not trying to advocate or blame someone. Just have own opinion, out of any tendencies..

Nathan October 27, 2005 at 11:44 pm

So, if you agree that journalists are subject to risk, do you or do you not agree that the BBC is leaving for that reason?

And with Sharipov, the charge would most likely be statutory rape in the US. And so long as it’s consensual, I don’t think many would consider it a serious crime. I also don’t agree that journalists are a class in need of special training or registration. If one gets paid to journalize, one’s a professional.

Denzil Uz October 28, 2005 at 3:01 am

Nathan, we became scholastic 😉
I agree that this could be ONE of the reasons. But, if people know from day one that “risk” is a permanent condition of their job, how it could be the ONLY reason of terminating this job?! Its seems illogical.
Same illogical, imho, to consider anyone paid for whatever kind and quality of newsmaking as a “professional”.

David October 28, 2005 at 4:32 am

Denzil’s comments remind me of the old arguments we used to have with Komsomol activists in the Soviet Union. Comparing the NYT case with the situation in Uzbekistan is simply ignorant. The BBC closed their office not simply because they were worried about foreign journalists, but because of threats and harassment of local staff. Its good to have an alternative point of view on the site, but its not very interesting if you just defend your government like an MFA official. We can read this stuff on Uzbek government websites.

If you want to be more interesting, you might argue that the BBC has been hated by the pres. admin. since their (false) report a couple of years that Gulnora Karimova had married Sadyk Safaev and therefore they were particularly targetted after Andijan. These personal vendettas do go on and on…

Denzil Uz October 28, 2005 at 7:16 am

David,
1. I do understand that I’m inconvenient and exasperating interlocutor for you and out of mainstream here, otherwise probably you wouldn’t hint me like “shut up and don’t disturb our unity”. Sorry, but seems I’ve grown up from the syndrome of permanent gratitude for “foreign benefactors” and don’t lay myself out to be liked here. And I’d already explained once that I harshly criticize our government among those who mostly defend it (same inconvenient 😉 ). Or you thing its more “interesting” only keep criticizing? – imho, it’d be same boring as the government websites you mentioned..
2. Thanks for recalling that BBC false report, which in fact proves that not every newsmaker is er.. very professional, even paid by the very known broadcasting. Vendetta? – hm, if we went so primitive, why then to wait for 2 years?! Very interesting, in deed. And, asaik, that report caused more laugh then peeving..
3. I agree that its incorrect to compare media climate in the US and Uzbekistan (if you meant this). The NYT case was mentioned just as a fact.

Laurence October 28, 2005 at 7:59 am

Does anyone know if the BBC is also closing the BBC Listening station that monitored broadcasts from Iran, China, Afghanistan, and so forth? That would seem to have some geopolitical significance, and if it has been closed, equivalent for the UK to losing the Karshi-Khanabad airbase for the US…

Next question–the German/NATO base in Termez, what will happen?

Simon October 28, 2005 at 8:24 am

It seem that for the moment the BBC Monitoring office in Tashkent is staying. The BBCM office does not just serve UK interests (google FBIS), but even if it does close a lot can be done from elsewhere.

Brian October 28, 2005 at 1:48 pm

I think we’re losing ourselves in the trees and not seeing the forest here. Meticulous points can be debated ad naseum, but the fact is that Uzbekistan before Andijan was one of the harshest countries in the world for journalists to work, and it’s just become that much harder after Andijan.

Denzil, it has nothing to do with snubbing ‘foreign benefactors’. The BBC is not a benefactor, it’s a news organization. We are dismayed that the BBC has closed because, in general, the BBC has shown high standards of reporting in Central Asia and all over the world. Generally you can consider them an honest, independent voice. And even though we’re foreigners, people post on this site because they care about the people of Uzbekistan / Central Asia… not because we have some kind of loyalty to generous foreign organizations.

Denzil Uz October 29, 2005 at 12:24 am

Wait Brian, if my posts somehow were perceived as snubbing people of this site – I deeply apologize. I’m far from Manichean “good-n-bad” approach both for foreigners (btw, HUT and Wahhabi missionaries also called themselves “benefactors”) and media. BBC is a great organization and I also regret its departure from my country.
Being meticulous? – Well, Brian, its all about the life and fate of my Motherland. Sorry, I can’t escape with the general statements – me better “shut up and don’t disturb”.. Moreover, people who really and seriously study developments in the Central Asia (sure, Registan has a lot of them) must go into details and be ready for broad interaction and dialogue. Otherwise, its just creating new Iron Curtains..

Denzil Uz October 29, 2005 at 12:33 am

Laurence, I’m also curious about the future of BBCM in the region, because in fact its not only “for news”. Of course, Simon is right that same job could be done out of region. But, as it was admitted even by techno fans, “human factor” has its own advantage, especially taking into account British traditions in Oriental politics. Definitely, it’s a question of geopolitics too…

Ben October 30, 2005 at 5:40 am

Laurence,

not quite sure as for the German Termez base. There were some threats to terminate the lease in case the EU was to proceed with its sanctions.

The article linked makes an interesting point. The German ISAF base is the last remaining military link for Uzbekistan to any other country than Russia:

Doch wolle Karimow sich nicht zu einseitig an Moskau binden. Ihm sei daher an Kontakten zum Westen gelegen.

“… but Karimov does not want to align himself too one-sidedly to Moscow. He would therefore like to retain contacts to the West.”

I don’t know whether that’s quite out of date (the article is from the 6th of October), but no other news from the German media on the fate of the 300-odd contingent in Termez ever since. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

Denzil Uz October 30, 2005 at 9:10 pm

Ben, Laurence,
the “problem” could come from the fact that Termez is used not only by Germans. And its not a “base” de jure, but local infrastructure for logistic support on the basis of separate contracts (afaik). Obviously, I suppose Tashkent must be interested in keeping “constructive link” with Berlin (and not only due to “counterbalance aspect”). But at the same time, Berlin probably will meet difficulties if “infrastructure” would be closed/rejected for/by other NATO allies, because of both moves from Tashkent and consequences of EU decisions.

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