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Dismissed state TV journalists continue fight against censorship

Two women journalists protesting media censorship in Uzbekistan ended their hunger strikes last week due to poor health, report Index on Censorship and news reports. Saodat Omonova and her colleague, Malohat Eshonkulova, had started their hunger strike after being arrested and fined for protesting against censorship and corruption in Uzbekistan's state television. Their case is emblematic of Uzbekistan's "atrocious human rights record, including repression of free speech," says Human Rights Watch.

Omonova and Eshonkulova were arrested on 27 June - Media Workers' Day in Uzbekistan - after trying to start their hunger strike outside the Presidential Palace in Tashkent. They were convicted of staging an unauthorised protest and fined 2.94 million Soms (US$1,500).

Eshonkulova told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that she decided to end her hunger strike after 19 days, when she started spitting up blood and could not lift her head. Omonova ended her hunger strike on 12 July after being forcibly hospitalised, reports Index.

The two women were seeking a meeting with President Islam Karimov to discuss media censorship at the state TV channel Yoshlar (Youth). They were fired from Yoshlar last December, three days after they staged protests against media censorship. They are still fighting a court battle to appeal their initial dismissal.

Eshonkulova told RFE/RL that since 2 May, they have sent 56 letters to Karimov detailing examples of censorship at Yoshlar and requesting a meeting with him. But they have received no response.

Omonova revealed to RFE/RL that after spending several years broadcasting state propaganda as an employee of state television, her "eyes are open now and [she] sees how ordinary people [in Uzbekistan] are suffering."

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), sacking journalists is particularly effective in a country where the government controls all "authorised" media, making it near impossible for them to find any other journalism work.

"The treatment that Omonova and Eshonkulova have received is clearly designed to intimidate other state media journalists who might be tempted to follow their brave example," said RSF.

Uzbekistan is ranked 163rd out of 178 counties in the latest RSF press freedom index. Independent journalists are routinely "persecuted, detained, and tried on spurious criminal defamation charges that carry the prospect of prison time and huge fines" and "websites containing information on sensitive issues or that are critical of the government are routinely blocked within Uzbekistan," says Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this month, the Press Court in Paris dismissed a lawsuit brought by the President's daughter, Lola Karimova, against French news site Rue89 for a May 2010 article that called her the daughter of "dictator Karimov", and alleged she was "whitewashing Uzbekistan's image" through charity events, reports Human Rights Watch.

In another case, Abdumalik Boboyev, a stringer for the U.S broadcaster Voice of America, has not been allowed to leave Uzbekistan because he was prosecuted last fall on trumped-up defamation charges, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to RSF, at least 11 media personnel are currently detained in Uzbekistan in connection with their work.

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