Uzbekistan blacks out internet to quell dissent
In early July protests broke out in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region surrounded by deserts in Uzbekistan. It turned nasty on the evening of July 1 when the police began shooting people. The state said that at least 18 people died, with hundreds of others injured.
The protests, which occurred in the regional capital of Nukus, erupted in response to a proposed constitutional change that would see the Karakalpakstan shift from being an autonomous region, with the right to secede from Uzbekistan, to a province of the country. In an attempt to quell dissent, the government turned to a tactic that has become increasingly common in the region: they cut off the internet.
Reports indicate that as early as June 26, before protests began, the government was already imposing some form of an information blackout by targeting people’s access to mobile internet connection. Later the state began shutting down ATMs and payment services.
Since then internet connection has remained largely restricted, with a small respite last week when it was turned on again for two hours. The state of emergency has been lifted in Karakalpakstan but as of Monday it seems the internet has still not been fully restored.
According to Anastasiya Zhyrmont, a campaigner in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the digital rights non-profit Access Now, getting information out of the region is extremely difficult. “The information flow is very limited”, she told me. “Since the first of July the internet has been so unstable. Even if people can get online it can take hours to upload photos, and up to five to 10 minutes to send a simple text message.”
For journalists and non-profits unable to access the region, this presents a significant challenge to covering the issues. Which is, of course, the purpose.
The Uzbekistan government does have a history of targeting online information sources. In November 2021 the national communications regulator, Uzkomnazorat, restricted access to a number of social media sites. The ban, along with previous ones, meant that Uzbekistanis were unable to access TikTok, Skype, WeChat, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and YouTube among a number of other sites. More recently access to the messaging app Signal has been blocked.
But their approach is not unique. Earlier this year neighboring Kazakhstan imposed a blackout in response to protests against rising fuel prices. We have reported extensively on internet blackouts across the world, including in this listicle (readers may be surprised to see that the U.K. used a blackout in response to Extinction Rebellion protests).
As blackouts become increasingly common, what can be done to tackle them?
Zhyrmont from Access Now says that in Kazakhstan they sought to encourage telecoms companies, many of whom have foreign investors, to help support people in blackouts. But she acknowledges that with employees on the ground, there are risks associated with defying increasingly authoritarian states.
Soon after the protests, the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, withdrew his intention to curb Karakpalastan’s autonomy. When the internet is fully restored we will have a better sense of what has been happening. What we know though is that this won’t be the last blackout we see in Uzbekistan. Nor in the rest of the world.
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
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This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Erica Hellerstein. Katia Patin, Liam Scott, and Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.