Galima Bukharbaeva

(WOMENSENEWS)–One morning last February Galima Bukharbaeva strolled over to the main square in the Uzbek capital city of Tashkent to find a group of people who did not recognize her putting up a banner.

“Galima Bukharbaeva is a political prostitute,” it said.

She assumed the government was behind the libel.

Her coverage of a notorious massacre had earned her official enmity. This kind of character defamation, she says, often besets female journalists who criticize the government. One female colleague found her home phone number on a mysterious billboard advertising cheap sex.

Such banners, she says, are the least that journalists fear in Uzbekistan, under the governmental leadership of Islom Karimov, who assumed dictatorial powers in 1991 and was the Uzbek Communist Party’s First Secretary during the period of Soviet rule.

“It is actually easier to be a female journalist in Uzbekistan,” says Bukharbaeva, the 31-year-old recipient of a 2005 International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “The boldest journalists in the country are women. If you are a man, they will beat you up or accuse you of being an Islamic terrorist. If you are a woman, the worst thing they will do is humiliate you. It will spoil your mood for a few days, but then you start again.”

Andijon: May 13, 2005

Bukharbaeva had irritated the government for some time but she really began to threaten authorities after May 13, 2005.

The events she covered began with a trial in which 23 prominent businessmen in the northeastern city of Andijon were arrested and accused of taking bribes and of Islamic extremism. Bukharbaeva says those are routine accusations that the Karimov government–which has partnered with the U.S. global campaign against terrorism–levies to confiscate people’s businesses or quell opposition.

When news came that the businessmen had lost their case, along with 2,000 local jobs, rumors began to spread that hundreds of relatives had taken up arms and had stormed the prison where family members had been held.

Working for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Bukharbaeva arrived in Andijon last May to find 2,000 unarmed protesters gathered in the city square in a peaceful protest.

In seven years covering Uzbekistan–as country director for War and Peace Reporting and as a correspondent for the Paris-based Agence France-Presse–Bukharbaeva had never seen such a show of democratic opposition.

“For the first time, people were saying things like, ‘The constitution guarantees free speech, but where is it? They accuse us of being terrorists, of being Islamists, but we are just ordinary people! Look at our hands. The only thing that we want is truth.'”

The moment of fledgling democracy was soon crushed, however, when government tanks surrounded the unarmed crowd and began firing into it without warning.

Bukharbaeva jumped into a ditch; a bullet blew through her backpack. She could not find her fiance or sister, both of whom are also journalists and were there covering the story for different publications.

Monumental Massacre

While government numbers put the civilian death toll at 41 (and claims that those deaths were caused by terrorists), New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates that hundreds of civilians were killed in Andijon, one of the largest massacres in the history of the former Soviet states and the largest in modern Uzbek history.

Separate investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that Uzbek government forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

Bukharbaeva was one of only three journalists reporting for the international media in Andijon. She filed numerous stories and her accounts were quoted far and wide in the international press.

“She was fearless,” said Rachel Denber, director of Europe and Central Asia Programs for Human Rights Watch. Since the 1990s, Karimov has expelled members of opposition parties and dissidents. Even before the Andijon massacre, Amnesty International estimated that Uzbekistan had at least 6,000 political prisoners.

Navbahor Imamova, a journalist with the Washington-based Voice of America, the international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government, says many, if not the majority, of Uzbeks never learned the extent of what happened in Andijon.

Imamova is originally from Uzbekistan and has known Bukharbaeva for six years. At one point she worked as a reporter for the Uzbek State TV and Radio. “There are very few journalists that were writing those kinds of critical reports in Uzbekistan. I certainly couldn’t do them; I was working for the censored state media.”

Imamova says Bukharbaeva is better known outside of Uzbekistan than she is inside the country, where she is only known in government circles and among the English or Russian-speaking elite. “Bukharbaeva does not write in Uzbek. If she did, her articles would not be allowed to be published there,” she says.

Censorship and Crackdown

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Uzbekistan as the eighth most censored country in the world, after Cuba and before Syria.

A press crackdown followed the Andijon massacre, and Bukharbaeva fled the country along with over a dozen other prominent journalists. She began a master’s degree program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in August.

“Thank God I am not 18 or 20 now,” says Bukharbaeva. “I cannot imagine what it would be like to graduate from the journalism program at Tashkent State University today.”

Her wedding, originally planned for October 2005 in the ancient Uzbek town of Bukhara, took place last autumn in New York’s City Hall. She has only seen her husband, who fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, three times since their wedding day.

Because she is not officially banned, Bukharbaeva can visit Uzbekistan, but she knows that she can no longer practice journalism there.

“The only thing I really want to do is to work as a journalist in my country, to develop independent media in Uzbekistan,” she says. “I see how people really hunger for good truthful information.”

Currently, however, Bukharbaeva is considered too much of a threat, as was evidenced by the banner that greeted her last February.

“Now my name even sounds scary for officials in Uzbekistan,” she said. “My childhood friend who works for the Uzbek government is afraid to meet with me. I call him and say, ‘C’mon let’s meet, God knows when are going to meet again.'”

Elizabeth Dwoskin is an editorial intern with Women’s eNews. She is a freelance writer and radio producer based in New York City.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].