Two years ago this week, Uzbekistan's security forces opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people. That's the official number. The actual figure was likely hundreds more, say most observers.
With the anniversary of the "Andijan massacre," one would expect Western journalists to flood into this ex-Soviet republic. They would be expected to write stories about how a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that Washington had enlisted in its "War on Terror" had since clamped down on dissent. They would likely note that Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, now ranks Uzbekistan as among "the worst of the worst" abusers of human rights and civil liberties in the world.
Instead, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has effectively gagged the media. Besides persecuting independent local journalists and blocking critical news websites, Tashkent has barred entry to most foreign correspondents.
"It's easily explained: [Mr.] Karimov doesn't want any foreign witness to what's going on," says Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
Yet, Uzbeks are puzzled – and upset – by this lack of foreign coverage. Revealing the depth of their isolation, one Uzbek journalist asked me at a recent videoconference to mark World Press Freedom Day, "Why are no foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Not interested?" As someone who had reported in Uzbekistan before, witnessed firsthand the postcommunist emergence of a free press in central and Eastern Europe, and taught journalism, I had been asked to speak about press freedom and respond to the journalists' questions via a video link with the US Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia, where I now live.
One catch, though. We were to steer clear of their own situation.
In Uzbekistan, local journalists are muzzled and persecuted, some locked up in prisons or psychiatric institutions. For these journalists, it might be risky simply to be seen entering the embassy, let alone to openly criticize their government.
After the Andijan protest, a defensive Tashkent went after anyone fostering "alien ideologies:" the Associated Press, the BBC, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, and nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were expelled or harassed until they finally left.
None of these issues were supposed to arise in our video discussion. But the second question veered off-script: "How should journalists perform when they're frightened?"
Thrown for a loop, I wondered, "Who am I to tell them what to do?"
While the situation certainly calls for courage, I told them, the instinct for self-preservation, to keep your head down, is also understandable. It's a deeply personal decision, to be made as a family.
I couldn't judge their reaction; the video transmission was blurred, sometimes fading out altogether. However, I was relieved when a US Embassy official in Tashkent later e-mailed me that my colleagues were pleased I didn't possess a "preachy tone." They wanted to continue the dialogue.
Afterward, I contemplated whether to write this article. The US Embassy warned me I might jeopardize my Uzbek colleagues.
But then I spoke with an older Slovak colleague, Peter Kerlik, who endured Communist repression. Kerlik, deputy chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, had sat in on the Uzbek video- conference, offering his perspective.
If in their shoes, Kerlik told me, he'd want me to fulfill my duty: inform and raise awareness.
"And we shouldn't forget another important responsibility of journalists – international solidarity with our colleagues," he said. "We must not leave those who are in trouble alone and isolated."
That clinched it. I decided to write.
And if a Part Two of our dialogue is ever scheduled, I'll be there. But will they?