By Azizdjon Yuldoshev,
Professor of Constitutional Law
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.