- - Monday, October 1, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — When Samir logs on to the Internet, he has to disguise his Web address to avoid official propaganda and protect himself from retaliation from his own government.

“In order to visit all the sites that I want, I use [Web proxies]. … All sites that write the truth and promote debate are blocked. Without a [proxy], all I can access is state news, full of joy and happiness,” said Samir, who like others interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by a first name.

Now, even the proxies are becoming increasingly difficult to access in his native Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country where information is so tightly controlled that the government is ranked among the world’s worst offenders of Internet freedom.

Freedom House, the international watchdog group that monitors government abuse, declared Uzbekistan “not free” in a report this year. Its Freedom on the Net project ranked the country at 77 on a 100-point scale, with zero indicating countries with the most open access to the Internet and 100 as the worst.

Observers even dismissed the government’s latest public relations campaign to promote foreign investment in Uzbekistan.

The state-run Information and Communication Technologies Week in Tashkent, the capital, featured presentations on topics such as Internet journalism and social networking in Uzbekistan. The exposition drew software developers, Internet providers and Web-solution companies from India, Israel, South Korea, Spain, Russia and the United States.

However, observers said the exhibition halls were filled with students and government employees who were pressured to attend in order to pump up the number of visitors.

“Our university is located near the main exhibition complex in Tashkent,” said Feruza, a journalism student at the National University of Uzbekistan. “Every time the government makes any exhibition, our dean forces us to go because they need a lot of people to show that they are popular — but it was not interesting.”

About 30 percent of Uzbekistan’s 28 million citizens use the Internet, according to the U.N. Broadband Commission for Digital Development. That percentage is higher than neighboring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan but less than Kazakhstan, where 45 percent of the population of 5.5 million surf the Web.

Uzbeks say the government often prevents them from taking full advantage of their Internet access.

“I had my own blog called Friend.uz,” said Mikhail, a blogger in Tashkent whose site hosted criticisms of Uzbek bureaucracy.

“It has existed for several years, but in June, I was summoned to the police. I was told that I published a post in my blog that offended Uzbekistan,” he said. “Within a month, I was called in for questioning and threatened with jail. As a result, I was forced to close the site.”

Aside from offending the government, Internet users also have come under pressure for posting “pornographic” material, but some say that charge is used merely as an excuse to clamp down on sites the authorities dislike.

Dinar, a housewife in Tashkent, said she was targeted because of a forum discussing relationship issues.

“I created a forum for women, which has been popular,” said Dinar, 32. “I was summoned to the police and was told that one of the topics of my forum was dedicated to sex, and that it falls within the scope of spreading pornography. I was threatened with jail, but in the end I managed to pay a bribe” and was released.

Observers say that Uzbek authorities seem particularly concerned about the use of social networks, following the Arab Spring that used online forums to mobilize protests to force out autocratic regimes.