Ambassador Rosenblum’s Remarks on Press Freedom at EPMM Graduation
Asalomu Aleykum, dobroe utro, hello to all my friends and colleagues in the room! Above all, congratulations to the graduates of the English for Mass Media Professionals (EPMM) program!!
I would like to thank Webster University for partnering with the US Embassy on this wonderful program. Dr. Jinker, Maggie, and I think a few others who have been instrumental in this program: Shahista, Farida and Lyubov – we really appreciate the work you all have done to make this program a reality. We have formed a very strong partnership over the past two years between our Embassy and Webster, and the strength of that partnership has been tested over these years as we navigate the pandemic and the challenges of virtual learning over of this period. I am delighted to say that we passed the test!
And I also want to thank the Webster team for your efforts to run a virtual program in Fergana. With a new Webster campus opening in Fergana, I believe this fall, we look forward to being able to conduct this EPMM program in Fergana in person next year – and perhaps even have representatives from our Embassy attend an opening or a closing, or both in Fergana!
We are also extremely grateful to our good friend and colleague, Josh Gaston, for his work leading this program over the past two years. I know that all the participants enjoyed attending his sessions. We are very sad that this is Josh’s last year in Uzbekistan as EPMM coordinator. Josh, we wish you much success in your new endeavors and thank you for all your service to this program. What an incredible contribution you have made to the development of Uzbekistan and to the US-Uzbek partnership.
I also want to applaud you all – as we applauded Josh, I want to applaud all the participants! Dear EPMM graduates: As working professionals with full-time jobs – and in many cases, I’m sure, also full-time families – it can also be a full-time job! – it’s so impressive to me that you took the time to participate in this program. This means that you place great importance on improving your ability to use English for reporting, writing and producing your stories. And this means that you place great importance on access to sources of information in English.
Above all, your commitment to this program means that you agree with the words of the Deputy Chairman of the Board of the National Fund for Media Support and Development, Saida Mirziyoyeva, who said in a speech there exactly one month ago, and I quote: “Freedom of the mass media and high-level journalism are an integral part of democracy. She went on to say, and I quote, “real reforms cannot be achieved without guaranteeing freedom of expression, transparency of public authorities and accountability to society”.
So the question is – and what I want to talk to you a bit about today – is whether those very high goals, those lofty goals in this statement that I just read are being achieved in Uzbekistan today. And if they are not achieved, what role will you play – as talented and hardworking professional journalists – in making this vision a reality?
In April, just last month, many of us – and I imagine many of you in this room – were surprised to learn that Uzbekistan had improved its ranking in the “World freedom of the press” by Reporters Without Borders for 2022, rising from 157th place to 133rd place. The way this ranking news was reported here in Uzbekistan was quite interesting to me: most media outlets simply reported that the rankings had moved up 24 places, and quoted Presidential Press Spokesperson Mr. Asadov, or the Chairman of the Board of the Media Support Fund, Mr. Allamjanov, who both presented this as international recognition of Uzbekistan’s significant progress towards a freer media environment. To be fair, Mr Allamjanov also noted room for improvement, saying “if the press receives less interference, we have a chance to rise to a higher level.”
Several media outlets outside of Uzbekistan, however, pointed out that this story was more complex than it seems. There is a real story behind the superficial story. And I think you will all agree with me that the job of professional journalists is to find and report the “real story”.
The fact is, there is a more complicated reason for Uzbekistan’s strong rise in the rankings, a reason that has nothing to do with improving conditions for free and independent media, or the treatment of journalists. and bloggers. The thing is, for its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Without Borders in French, i.e. RSF), completely changed the methodology of country assessment. They introduced five new press freedom indicators and used new types of surveys to measure a country’s performance on each of these indicators.
As a result of this change in methodology, many countries have moved up and down. It is therefore very difficult, if not impossible, to make meaningful comparisons between the 2021 and 2022 rankings.
The thing is that Uzbekistan’s SCORE – the number they give to assess a country’s ranking – the 2022 World Press Freedom Index score HAS DECLINED from 2021. It went up from 49.26 in 2021 to 45.74 in 2022. I would like to repeat that: Uzbekistan’s score HAS DECLINED. This is the story behind the story.
I will also quote a few excerpts from the RSF report that accompanied the 2022 World Press Freedom Index: “The authorities largely control the media, as well as a number of bloggers close to the government… The authorities still not implemented the reforms. necessary to abolish the laws that allow the repression of the media. Surveillance, censorship and self-censorship are rampant…Officials have a habit of exerting economic pressure and trying to bribe journalists…The last imprisoned journalists have been released but not rehabilitated… Bloggers are threatened and arrested. These are all quotes from RSF’s World Press Freedom Index report.
Now it’s also important for professional journalists – and for ambassadors! – be fair and balanced in their dealings, and as fair and balanced as possible. And that often means providing meaningful context for stories. And the meaningful context of the history of Uzbekistan’s ranking in the RSF World Press Freedom Index 2022 should also include a recognition that the environment for journalism and the degree of media freedom and diversity in Uzbekistan today are vastly improved from where they were six years ago. . At least that’s my opinion. I’d be interested to hear your opinions, but my opinion is that based on what I observed and heard when I came here BEFORE 2016 versus what I saw, read and heard speaking to journalists across the country – after 2016, the situation has improved considerably overall in terms of the degree of media freedom and diversity and the environment for journalists.
There has been a dramatic and overall positive change in the media landscape since 2016. There are more opportunities than ever for journalists to report what is really happening in your country, or in your government, or in your company.
At the same time, there are serious gaps in the legal framework for the media; in the attitude of too many officials towards the media; in the professional and ethical standards that exist for journalists; and above all, in the ability of journalists to work without pressure or intimidation, especially when covering areas that someone considers politically sensitive. There is far too much self-censorship as journalists learn what “red lines” they cannot cross because they are made to fear crossing those lines.
And I would say that these shortcomings have become even sharper and more visible over the past year. This is why I – and so many other Uzbekistan watchers – were so deeply surprised to see the news about the World Press Freedom Index rankings. Surprised, that is, until we find out the story behind the story!
In conclusion, I want to emphasize the positive. There are more opportunities than ever in your country for media representatives. Opportunities to give your fellow citizens a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have, to make sure their concerns are heard. There are more opportunities than ever to write about interesting and important issues that affect people’s daily lives. There are more opportunities than ever to hold public officials accountable for their actions, to ensure – as President Mirziyoyev has repeatedly said – that the state is at the service of the people, not the reverse !
I hope, and believe, that you – the brave, hardworking and dedicated representatives of the Fourth Estate, as it is known – have found these English lessons useful for your daily journalistic work. And that these courses will help you continue to do your honorable work at an even higher and more professional level. I have so much admiration for you and what you do.
Tabriklayman! Pozdravlyayu go! Congratulations!