Written by Sayyora Narzullayeva,

March 26, 2021

Image source: Podrobno.uz

Nature of the problem

This blog post explores legal issues surrounding freedom of expression in Uzbekistan. Primarily, it explores to what extent the state may restrict bloggers and online newspapers’ activities for the reasons of public interests. It is no coincidence that one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, once said following:

were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter

 But are there limits to this right, and where does the responsibility of media begin?  

On November 20, 2020, several famous online newspapers in Uzbekistan received a warning letter from the Agency for Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) for their information. However, it is no exaggeration to say that their statements to the public have left some doubt at a time when the so-called Covid-19  pandemic was raging not only across the country but around the world. This blog post explores the legal issues surrounding freedom of speech in Uzbekistan during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Legal basis of freedom of speech in Uzbekistan

 Article 29 of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information of their choice. Article 67 of our Constitution also deals with the freedom of the media and the rule of law. However, the same article sets that the media also has a responsibility to ensure that the information is accurate.   And censorshipis not allowed.

 Furthermore, constitutional provisions on freedom of speech in Uzbekistan are later defined and developed in the following statutes: “On guarantees and freedom of access to information”, “On mass media”, “On protection of journalism” , “On copyright and related rights”,  “On publishing activities”, “On advertising”, “On the principles and guarantees of freedom of information”. Therefore, we can quickly conclude that Uzbek legislators quite firmly established the regulatory framework of freedom of speech through legislative means.   

Covid-19 and free press

By the change of government in December 2016, freedom of speech tremendously improved in Uzbekistan. Notably, online news outlets, such as Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, Podrobno.uz did a pretty decent job in delivering ongoing hot issues to the public. This led the main population to turn from outdated government newspapers to much more liberal, open-minded, and fast online news outlets for breaking news. As a result, political circles started to take columns, news, and interviews published in online news outlets very seriously.

The covid-19 pandemic became a severe test for freedom of speech and press for journalists and the media in Uzbekistan. After the covid-19 patients and victims rose tremendously in summer and autumn 2020, suspicions rose against the governmental statistics’ reliability. Online news outlets started to question them.   

AIMC sends warning letters!

On 20 November 2020, the AIMC sent warning letters to several online news outlets (Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, Podrobno.uz). It was due to their publication on hospital statistics for comparative coronavirus patients and Ministry of Health’s data on coronavirus patients. This comparison was based on the gap between the data provided by the presidential press service and the Ministry of Health.

The author at Podrobno.uz especially put the following questions forward to the government:

why patients who have not been diagnosed with coronavirus are treated together with COVID patients in distribution centers?

Or, why does Uzbekistan not provide separate statistics on patients with pneumonia?

Sending such warnings to liberal news outlets sparked much controversy among Uzbek society that was already under a massive pain during the global pandemic. Naturally, it led all three news outlets to issue their comments against AIMC.  Podrobno.uz said it believed the written warning, which referred to “some consequences”, could be used to put pressure on the media not to ask awkward questions and not to cover sensitive topics. In its statement, Gazeta.uz said that “asking questions to the government and conveying citizens’ views is one of the main tasks of the media in a democratic society. That fact must not be taken into account.” In this regard, Podrobno.uz asked “Has AIMC,  which is supposed to protect freedom of speech and journalism, started censoring and teaching the media how to cover events?”  But so far this problem has not been solved and it seems that all parties gave up their legal battle against each other.

   Notably, following these events, a roundtable discussion on freedom of speech and the development of the press was held on 3 December at a prestigious hotel in Tashkent. There was no mention of inappropriate warnings. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media John McGregor recalled Uzbekistan’s responsibilities to ensure freedom of expression. Helen Fraser, the head of the UN mission, who supported John McGregor’s remarks, also recalled Uzbekistan’s commitment to the international community. In particular, the conversation focused on the need to guarantee freedom of expression and the right to express thoughts online.


The global health problems caused by COVID-19 require effective measures to protect people’s health and lives. This includes combating disinformation that may cause panic and social unrest. Regrettably, some governments are using this imperative as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom; this is a counterproductive approach that must stop. This begs the question: in what cases can the state restrict the activities of the media?

According to Article 5 of the Law on Mass Media, freedom of the media is free and can express their views and beliefs. It is prohibited to obstruct or interfere with the activities of the media. No one has the right to demand that the published messages and materials be agreed upon in advance, as well as that their text be changed or removed from publication altogether. Based on this law, it is illegal to demand news outlets to remove articles from their websites. This undoubtedly amounts to censorship. Therefore, it is against the law to issue a warning issued by the AIMC and to put pressure on it with serious legal consequences.

Then, in what cases can the activities of the media be restricted? According to Article 6 of the Law on Mass Media, freedom of the press may be limited only in the following cases:

• encouraging forcible change of the existing constitutional order and territorial integrity of  Uzbekistan;

• promoting war, violence and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism and bigotry;

• disclosure of information that is a state secret or other secret protected by law;

• dissemination of information that incites national, racial, ethnic or religious hatred;

• promotion of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and precursors, unless otherwise provided by law;

• promoting pornography.

So, in the absence of the above grounds, any restriction of the media and freedom of speech is considered censorship. This means that none of the grounds for restricting news outlets’ activity are valid. Furthermore, the publication of statistics on Covid-19 patients does not equivalent to a state secret. As a final note, it is so ironic that the AIMC was established not to restrict the media or freedom of speech but to protect and create the necessary conditions for journalists, bloggers and other media. But in reality, we can often observe the reverse.


The AIMC’s warning letters to news outlets have led citizens, journalists, and government agencies in Uzbekistan to recall the limits of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It seems that 25 years of isolation led to many problems unsolved. As a young democratic country, Uzbekistan shall go through this hot debate between public bodies and private rights for effective regulation and the right to information. And here, we are being witnesses that the media, which is a bridge between the state and society, has the most effective impact on raising citizens’ legal consciousness. To protect these young and vibrant media tools in Uzbekistan, the AIMC warning letters case shows that domestic society and the international community can also play a vital role. In conclusion, the rule of law has to say in this process, which is essential to protecting citizens’ constitutional rights. We strongly hope that level of freedom of speech always rises and never goes back again.

Cite as: Sayyora Narzullayeva, “The limits of freedom of speech in Uzbekistan under Covid-19”, Uzbekistan Law Blog, 26.03.2021.