Echoes of One of World’s Most Repressive Regimes Heard in U.S. Campaign for President
Editor’s Note: Donald Trump has repeatedly said he would change libel laws if elected. He has threatened legal action against publications over stories, and blocked access to various “crooked media” organizations that he believes portray him in an unfair light.
The Republican nominee has expressed his contempt for the First Amendment’s freedom of the press by proclaiming, “With me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people. We’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like you never get sued before.”
Jerry Huffman spent close to two years trying to establish an independent media in Uzbekistan, a place human rights watchdogs define as an authoritarian state with limited civil rights. Huffman shares his concerns about the parallels between life in Uzbekistan and the current political climate in the U.S.
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It was news not even a dictatorial government could pretend didn’t happen.
Islam Karimov, the Uzbekistan president, died last month, on September 2, eight days after a stroke. Yet no one in the country dared run that story until it was first reported by state run media. It was simply too dangerous to do so.
In countries like Uzbekistan, you don’t report anything negative about the president, not even his death. Doing so invites harassment, beatings or torture.
During Karimov’s 25-year reign, there were plenty of stories of protestors being boiled alive and their bodies returned to their family as a warning to others. Karimov was the iron fist of a paranoid and vindictive government.
At a Karimov rally, you stood on cue. You applauded on cue. And you waved at the “Dear President” on cue. Not unlike what happens at a Donald Trump rally.
In the late 1990s, I worked with a non-governmental organization, Internews, in Uzbekistan. Working across four newly established Central Asian “democracies,” our teams established the region’s first independent television stations.
We were part of a larger contingent of legal, judicial and health specialists. Optimistically, the State Department called us the Democracy Team.
On our side were young, idealistic Uzbek journalists enthralled with the heady freedom of truthfully reporting the news. We hammered the principles of fairness, accuracy and balance in reporting.
Although Uzbekistan’s constitution asserts that “democracy shall be based upon common human principles, according to which the highest value shall be the human being, his life, freedom, honour, dignity and other inalienable rights,” the Uzbek government constantly hammered and harassed us.
If a station stepped outside the lines of acceptable “news” there were consequences. Electric power was cut, tax audits were routine, our students were followed and their families questioned.
Eleven years ago, the Karimov government hit back hard. Two of our staffers were charged with “conspiring to create publications of an informational nature.” We ran afoul of a totalitarian government for creating Journalism 101 textbooks without permission.
Behind closed doors the government put on its case. Later, I learned that my local manager, whose journalist husband had disappeared years earlier, not only blasted the judge for allowing the ridiculous case to proceed, but also corrected the grammar in one of his rulings.
Both were given a bureaucratic slap on the wrist but the broader message was clear. We were hitting too close to home. To stay would have put lives at risk. One by one, all of the NGOs, including Internews, left Uzbekistan.
More than a decade later it is unsettling to see parallels between the death of one dictator and Trump’s power grab.
Karimov and wannabes like Trump say outlandish things because they get away with it. Karimov claimed to have authored some 160 books. Trump says he is the only one who can save America. Karimov ordered protesters killed. Trump offers to pay the legal bills of supporters who beat protesters.
Absurdity is a matter of degree. Trump goes on any morning news show that will have him. Then he leads chants of “lying media” at reporters covering his rallies.
The power transfer in Uzbekistan has reportedly gone well. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been named as acting president. He worked in the shadow of Karimov and, according to the BBC, instructed state media not to show images of him because Karimov might have gotten jealous.
He has replaced the education minister as well with his own deputy. This education ministry is regularly used during elections to manipulate vote totals. Mirziyoyev has promised to follow the course of his predecessor.
In spite of a morally corrupt government, Uzbekistan is a country of warm and caring people. They are the ones who keep me awake at night concerned for their future. I hope they find a way out of this leadership crisis to a more genuine level of freedom.
Funny, I find myself hoping the same thing for us.
Jerry Huffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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