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Is Right to Freedom of Speech Fully Guaranteed in Uzbekistan ?

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Is the right to freedom of speech fully guaranteed in Uzbekistan?

Azizdjon Yuldoshev,
Associate Professor of the Department of Constitutional Law at TSUL,

According to article 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, speech and beliefs. The consolidation of this right in the Constitution of the country is one of the main guarantees of freedom of speech, since it obliges the State to ensure it. To assess the level of ensuring freedom of speech, we must first determine its content.

It is commonly acknowledged that freedom of speech is an opportunity to freely express one's opinion and beliefs on a variety of public and other issues, both verbal and in writing. Consequently, freedom of speech presupposes active action, a wide scope for expression of opinion and can be restricted only in accordance with the law.

The content of freedom of speech is most precisely formulated in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to this article, everyone has the right to freely adhere to their opinions and to their free expression, which includes the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate all kinds of information and ideas, regardless of State borders, orally, in writing or through print or artistic forms of expression, or by other means of their choice.

In accordance with international legal norms on freedom of speech, article 29 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan grants everyone the right to seek, receive and disseminate any information, with the exception of information directed against the existing constitutional system and other restrictions provided for by law. And according to article 67 of the Constitution, the mass media are free and exempt from censorship.

In Uzbekistan, freedom of speech is ensured by the laws "On Mass Media", "On the principles and guarantees of freedom of information", "On the openness of the activities of State authorities and management" and other regulatory legal acts. The study of legislation shows that Uzbekistan has a legal framework and institutions to ensure freedom of speech.

Furthermore, the State guarantees freedom of activity and access to information, the right of ownership of mass media, their protection from unlawful decisions of State bodies, actions or omissions of their officials, which is also recognized by the international community. Hence, Uzbekistan is ranked 133rd out of 180 countries in the ranking of the World Press Freedom Index for 2022 and rose by 24 positions compared to last year.

Indeed, in 2022, the number of mass media in the country increased by almost 30 percent compared to 2016 and amounts to 1962, and the number of online publications has almost doubled over the past six years and reached 677. "Kun.uz ", "el tuz", "qalampir.uz " and other online publications are playing an increasingly active role in the operational coverage of topical issues, objective and critical speeches.
As the global Internet users in Uzbekistan grow, so does the role of social networks in Uzbekistan.
According to the statistics, in the first half of 2022, The Telegram messenger users exceeded 18 million, and other social network users' statistics are as follows; Odnoklasniki - 16.7 million, Facebook 4.7 million, Instagram - 3.7 million, VKontakte - 2.6 million, Linked-In - 288 thousand and Twitter - 51.6 thousand.
Groups of various interests are created in social networks, in which users share information on topical issues. For example, in social networks, not only individuals or organizations but also government agencies open their accounts and create groups. For example, groups such as "Xalq bilan muloqot", "Maslahat.uz ", "Drivers of Tashkent" and others.

The increase in the activity of information dissemination in the media, social networks and other mass media in Uzbekistan is also associated with minimal restrictions on freedom of speech according to international standards. According to part 3 of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, subjects to restrictions must be established by law and are of primary importance:

a) to respect the rights and reputations of others;

b) for the protection of state security, public order, health or morals of the population.

According to article 6 of the Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan dated May 5, 2014, No. LRU-369, access to information on the activities of state authorities and management is restricted if the specified information is classified in accordance with the procedure established by law as information constituting state secrets or other secret protected by law. The list of information related to information on the activities of public authorities and management, access to which is restricted, as well as the procedure for attributing information to such information is established by law. At the same time, according to article 6 of December 12, 2002 No. 439-II, followings can not be subject to restriction: acts of legislation on the rights and freedoms of citizens, the procedure for their implementation, as well as establishing the legal status of public authorities and management bodies, citizens' self-government bodies, public associations and other non-governmental non-profit organizations;
information on environmental, meteorological, demographic, sanitary-epidemiological, emergency situations and other information necessary to ensure the safety of the population, settlements, production facilities and communications;
information available in the open collections of information and library institutions, archives, departmental archives and information systems of legal entities operating on the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

Also, the restriction of freedom of speech is the honor and dignity of a person. According to article 40 of the Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Administrative Responsibility, slander, that is, the dissemination of knowingly false misinterpretations that disgrace another person, is an administrative offense. The commission of the same actions after the application of an administrative penalty is a crime.

As you know, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to restrictions on freedom of speech in many countries, as it has contributed to the growth of misinformation. In response to these growing legal challenges, UNESCO has issued guidelines for judges and courts at both the national and regional levels, which can serve as reference materials for applying the theoretical foundations of international law and standards for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression. The guidelines recommend principles to be followed when fighting the spread of lies during a pandemic.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, some States have adopted laws to combat disinformation. In Uzbekistan, for the production, storage, distribution or demonstration of materials containing a threat to public safety and public order in article 244 The Criminal Code establishes liability. According to this article, the production or storage for the purpose of distributing materials aimed at creating panic among the population is a crime.

At the same time, the development of information technologies and public relations open up new opportunities for ensuring freedom of speech in Uzbekistan and requires improvement of legislation. Social networks and messengers are gaining popularity among the population, the dissemination of information in which is not regulated by law.

In order to improve legislation in the field of freedom of speech, the Information Code of Uzbekistan is being developed. It should become a regulatory document designed to unify existing laws. It is expected that thanks to this code, information protection will be properly carried out, both freedom of speech and information security of the individual, society and the state will be ensured.

Religious tolerance in Uzbekistan - changing approaches and views

With the declaration of independence and the commitment of the Government of Uzbekistan to the ideals of democracy, the choice of a secular path for the development of society gradually made it possible to create equal legal conditions for the existence of religions in general and religious groups in particular.

In the religious sphere, this large-scale work is carried out by the relevant state bodies and institutions of civil society and is aimed at providing citizens w ith the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of conscience; strengthening religious pluralism, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue in particular.

One of the significant results of the joint work is the adoption in December 2018 by the UN General Assembly of a special resolution ’’Enlightenment and Religious Tolerance”.

The adoption of the resolution was the practical implementation of the initiative of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, put forward at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. The main goal of the proposed resolution is “ensuring universal access to education, the elimination of illiteracy and ignorance”.

It is noteworthy that the resolution was not only unanimously supported by all UN member states, but and adopted with the co-authorship of over 50 countries. This testifies to the high recognition by the international community of the relevance and timeliness of the initiative of the President of Uzbekistan.
The document is intended to "promote tolerance and mutual respect, ensure religious freedom, protect the rights of believers, and prevent their discrimination."

The resolution emphasizes the important role of promoting peace, human rights, tolerance, and friendship. Also, it recognizes the importance of integration, mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding in the name of strengthening security' and peace on the planet.
The document welcomes all international, regional, and national initiatives aimed at promoting interreligious, intercultural, and interfaith harmony and combating discrimination against individuals based on religion or belief.

At the same time, the adopted resolution calls on UN member states to implement appropriate communication strategies, such as large-scale advocacy in national and international media, as well as on the Internet, and disseminate educational information about tolerance, non-violence, and freedom of religion or belief.

The document also recognizes the key role of UNESCO in promoting peace and security in the world by expanding cooperation among nations through education, science and culture.

Over the past five years, significant changes have taken place in Uzbekistan and large-scale reforms have been implemented in many areas, including in the religious and educational sphere.

A number of legislative acts aimed at further improvement of activities in the religious sphere have been adopted.

In order to study Islam in-depth and teach its scientific foundations, the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan was established. The academy specializes in teaching secular and religious knowledge, and training qualified personnel in the interpretation of the Koran, Islamic law, religious dogma, and hadith.
In Uzbekistan, peculiar mechanisms are involved in the revival of national and religious values, the study and promotion of the rich scientific and spiritual heritage of great ancestors, strengthening of religious tolerance in society - the activities of the Center for Islamic Civilization, international research centers named after Imam Bukhari, Imam Termizi and Imam Maturidi have been established.

As a result of large-scale reforms and transformations carried out in the religious sphere, the Higher Madrasah Mir Arab in Bukhara and the School of Hadith Studies began their activities in Samarkand.
In addition, the “Waqf’ Charitable Public Foundation was established under the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, among the tasks of which is financing the reconstruction of mosques, holy places of pilgrimage and visiting, and other facilities, providing a material and technical base, and providing material support to workers in this area. The Foundation got the opportunity to dispose of funds received on 3 accounts: charitable, waqf, and zakat (ushr, fidya, fitr).

In accordance with the adopted legislative acts, in order to further improve the activities of the Committee for Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan, a new composition of the Council for Religious Affairs, which is a public advisory' body under the Committee, was approved.

In addition, a department for work with women has been created in the structure of the Committee for Religious Affairs, and the position of a deputy chairman in charge of this area of work has also been introduced. A Republican propaganda group has been set up to coordinate spiritual and educational work among women.

At the same time, Uzbekistan attaches great importance to the preservation of religious and spiritual heritage, the enrichment of existing funds, the creation of the necessary conditions for local and foreign researchers to work with historical sources, and a comprehensive study of samples of historical and cultural heritage.

Today in the country-, in order to ensure interethnic and interfaith harmony in society, a legislative framework has been created that provides for the observance of the rights and legitimate interests of citizens.

The Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan establishes the norm on freedom of religion for everyone. Attention is also paid to the improvement and liberalization of national legislation in the field of religion. Simplified procedures for obtaining permission to produce, import, and distribute religious literature. The procedure for state registration of religious organizations has been further optimized.

At present, the new Law ‘’On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" has entered into force, which will contribute to the full provision of the constitutional rights of citizens of the country to freedom of conscience and religion.

Currently, only 2 335 religious organizations of 16 religious denominations operate in Uzbekistan and 2142 of these are Muslim organizations. There are also 178 Christian organizations operating in Uzbekistan, 8 Jewish communities, 6 communities of the Baha'i Faith, one Flare Krishna society, and one Buddhist temple, as well as the interfaith Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

Recently, Uzbekistan has registered 96 religious organizations, of which 2 higher and one secondary specialized Islamic educational institution in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Termez, 74 mosques, and 19 churches.

At the same time, the national legislation of Uzbekistan does not provide for any restrictions on the number of religious organizations or the timing of their registration.

Religious organizations operating in the republic, along with other public organizations, actively participate in spiritual and educational work, make a significant contribution to improving the spirituality of society, the formation of strong beliefs among young people based on patriotism, as well as inter-confessional and inter-ethnic tolerance.

It should be noted that the religious policy in Uzbekistan is based on the principles of the secular nature of the state, religious tolerance, and equal treatment of all religions. Representatives of various nations and ethnic groups professing Islam, Christianity , Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions carry out their activities in the republic on equal terms.

All conditions have been created for the adherents of each confession, allowing them to freely practice their religion without any hindrance. Believers freely pray in mosques, churches, and synagogues, observe fasting, and make pilgrimages as well. Religious organizations have the right to own territory, publish literature, train their religious ministers, and organize pilgrimages to sacred places.

The freedom of religion guaranteed by the national legislation of Uzbekistan has created all the necessary conditions for meeting the religious needs of all citizens - representatives of 138 national and ethnic groups.

Representatives of different faiths freely celebrate all religious holidays. Therefore, from year to year, Eid al-Adha and Ramadan Eid are celebrated on an increasingly large scale - among Muslims, Easter and Christmas - among Christians, Passover, Purim and Hanukkah - among Jews, Navruz - among Bahai, as well as festivities dedicated to Buddha and Krishna and other big events.

Believers make a pilgrimage to holy places: Muslims to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj and Umrah rituals, Christians to Russia, Greece, and Israel, and Jews to Israel.

During the years of independence, about 330 thousand Muslims made a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, including 130 thousand - Hajj and 200 thousand - Umrah, more than 2,5 thousand Christians and Jews visited religious shrines in Israel. Russia, Turkey, Italy, Georgia, and Greece.

In order to meet the spiritual needs of society, a large amount of religious literature of various kinds has been published annually. For full coverage of the religious life of Uzbekistan, a number of newspapers and magazines are published, including the newspapers “Islom Nuri" “Word of Life" (Слово жизни), the magazines “Khidoyat", “East from above" (Восток свыше).

Currently, a set of measures is being systematically implemented in Uzbekistan to protect the population from the negative impact of destructive ideas that reflect the radical extremist ideology and religious fanaticism.

An important step in this direction was the application of acts of pardon. In particular, since 2017, 19 decrees of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan have been adopted on pardoning persons who had committed crimes.

It should be noted that over the past five years, within the framework of the consistent policy pursued in Uzbekistan in the field of protecting the rights and freedom of citizens, special attention has been paid to measures aimed at protecting the rights, freedom, honor, and dignity of not only citizens living in the republic, but also our fellow citizens who find themselves in a difficult life situation in foreign countries.
Unfortunately, some Uzbek citizens, who fell under the influence of alien ideas and believed in false promises, joined the ranks of international terrorist organizations in different years and in zones of armed conflicts abroad. Spouses, fathers of some of the women returned as part of humanitarian operations, died during armed clashes.

Considering this circumstance, on behalf of the President of Uzbekistan, in 2019-2021, five “Mekhr" (Mercy) humanitarian actions were successfully carried out, within which more than 500 citizens of the republic, mainly women and children, w ere returned to their homeland from the zones of armed conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

In order to further assist in their speedy reintegration and rehabilitation at the state level, a set of measures has been implemented to provide timely medical, psychological, material, and moral assistance. To date, all repatriates have been created the necessary conditions for their adaptation to peaceful life and integration into society and provided access to educational and other social programs, including the prov ision of housing and employment.

The Uzbek authorities are focusing on establishing a constructive dialogue and cooperation with international organizations and experts in the religious field.

During visits to Uzbekistan by the UN High Commissioner on human rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein (May 2017) and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier (April 2018) discussed the current state of affairs, praised the reforms in our country, noted that Uzbekistan pays special attention to ensuring inter-ethnic harmony and religious tolerance, strengthening friendship between representatives of various nations and nationalities.

Following the visit to Uzbekistan of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, Ahmed Shahid (October 2017), a separate document was adopted on the implementation of a set of measures in the field of religion.

The Special Rapporteur noted the progress made in simplifying the procedures for registering and carrying out the activities of religious organizations, as well as improving the system of religious education in the country.

The UN representative welcomed the interaction of the Uzbek authorities with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and stressed the interest in promoting reforms in the field of protecting religious freedom in the country.

One more piece of information. In December 2020, the US State Department excluded Uzbekistan from the so-called. “Special watch list” to ensure religious freedoms.

It should be noted that in 2018, given the significant improvement in the situation in the field of ensuring religious freedoms, Uzbekistan was excluded from the list of “countries of particular concern”. Since 2006, the Republic had been on this “black list” for 12 years. The exclusion of Uzbekistan from the “special watch list" is a huge achievement and international recognition for our country.

In general, it is worth noting that an important distinguishing feature of the religious life of modern Uzbekistan is the inadmissibility of establishing advantages or restrictions for one religion in relation to other confessions.

One of the main priorities in reforming society in order to ensure interethnic harmony and religious tolerance is to ensure and protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, and their equality before the law, regardless of race, gender, nationality, language, social origin, beliefs, religion, personal and social status, which enshrined in the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan consistently and strictly fulfills its international obligations in the field of ensuring religious freedom within the framework of international human rights treaties.
It is known that current Uzbekistan has acceded to more than 70 major international human rights instruments. Accession to these documents contributed to the creation of an effective system for the protection of human rights in Uzbekistan.

It is important to mention that the policy pursued by Uzbekistan in the field of religion, aimed at strengthening interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in society, is an important factor in stability and security.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the large-scale reforms being implemented in the country are a clear confirmation of the consistent continuation by the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan of the implementation of the principle “Everything for the sake of man, for the sake of his future”.

Sodiqjon Toshboyev,
chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of
Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan
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