TASHKENT -- Faced with an increase in online content promoting violent extremist ideology, the Uzbek government has stepped up its efforts to develop and activate mechanisms to contain this scourge.
The Committee on Religious Affairs (KDR) and other government agencies are working to identify and block websites and social networks that contain radical or extremist content.
The KDR puts out a regularly updated list of materials that may not be imported, produced, disseminated or displayed in Uzbekistan, which it submits to the Supreme Court for investigation and approval.
The most recent list, published May 17, includes a record 496 items deemed "radical", including four religious chants or "nasheeds" with lyrics that glorify or promote extremism, about 20 books, as well as websites and accounts on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Odnoklassniki.
"Materials promoting extremism and terrorism" have been circulating widely online, the KDR said in a recent statement.
"This therefore means that it is imperative not only for our country but also for the global community to develop and put into practice mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of such information among the population," it said.
This includes identifying and restricting such content on social networks.
The actions are based on a resolution the government adopted in 2018 that allows the blocking of media outlets that "promote extremist, propagandistic or hateful content online".
Songs "based on the idea of fanaticism" also are barred from import and dissemination.
In May 2019 the KDR listed 42 blocked "extremist" information resources, including 22 websites, and in January 2022 the KDR named 166 websites, channels and accounts.
Extremism just one click away
Many Uzbek youth encounter radical or terrorist ideology on the internet or on social networks.
Radicalisation can put them on the pathway to prison, with youth in the 18-to-25 age bracket disproportionately represented in the country's prisons.
On May 22, a 19-year-old youth received a three-year sentence from the Jizzakh city criminal court for disseminating banned extremist materials, Supreme Court spokesman Aziz Abidov said.
For three years the young man had "studied information about various fanatical ideas" outlawed in Uzbekistan on his mobile phone, via the Telegram app, Abidov said.
Also last month, 21-year-old Jahangir Ulugmurodov received a three-year prison sentence from the Akkurgan district criminal court in Tashkent province for sending his classmates a YouTube link to a radical nasheed.
He had been a scholarship student at Tashkent State University of Economics.
Earlier this year, police arrested Ulugmurodov at his residence in Yanguyul district. They found a link to the nasheed he had sent to his classmates in a Telegram group last year on his phone.
The KDR concluded it was "steeped in ideas of fanaticism".
A number of defendants convicted of similar crimes claim they did not know they were breaking the law against "providing information support to ... extremism" with just one click.
Some have been convicted merely for visiting a website belonging to a member of an extremist group, the Supreme Court press office said.
Eight Tashkent residents are being investigated on suspicion of being involved in an international terrorist organisation, local media reported May 26
The suspects reportedly approached leaders of Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad through messaging apps, promoted extremist ideology and were planning to travel to combat zones in Syria.
The issue of banned content online is deeper than it seems at first glance, said Tashkent-based information technology specialist Firdavs Nusratov.
"With certain settings, a device's operating system or the messaging apps themselves can save content on a phone or laptop that the user supposedly deleted," he said. "Not everyone is aware of that."
"So even if you just click on an unfamiliar link, you can unintentionally leave something in the device's memory that will be considered evidence during an investigation," Nusratov said.
In early February, Tashkent State Technical University student Sardor Rakhmonkulov, 22, received a five-year sentence for disseminating a religious song that authorities deemed extremist.
He supposedly downloaded the song through the VK music bot in the Telegram messaging app and shared it with his contacts.
In early March, however, an appeals court converted the five-year jail sentence into a suspended sentence and set a two-year probation period, and he was released in the courtroom.
A balancing act
Concerned about the spread of extremist ideology, a 2016 amendment to the Uzbek Criminal Code tightened punishment for "disseminating and displaying materials that contain a threat to public security and public order".
It included the additional qualification of "using mass media, telecommunication networks or ... the internet".
Offenders may be liable for fines, up to three years of corrective labour while still living at home, one to three years of a form of house arrest, or up to three years in prison.
Of the latest measures, Consultations on International Policy and Economy think-tank president Fikret Shabanov expressed some misgivings.
"Blocking is the most radical measure you can take," he said.
"On the one hand, it has positive elements for society and the state, such as preventing the promotion of drugs, and outlawing descriptions of ways to commit suicide or to produce explosive devices," he said.
It also prevents users from accessing hazardous content such as pedophilia, violence, fake news and radical extremism, Shabanov said.
But such bans simultaneously endanger the state, he said, adding that the government will not achieve its strategic aims through blocking alone.
The "forbidden fruit" of information may even entice viewers, he said.
"To soundly and effectively solve these issues, it's crucial to modernise the national security doctrine and adapt it to keep up with fast-changing conditions," Shabanov said.
'The right thing to do'
For Andijan-based journalist Sabokhat Rakhmonova, the benefits outweigh any concerns.
The authorities made the right decision to block or ban online materials that propagate extremist ideology, she said.
"Some may find it amusing that the country is doing something that on the surface looks absurd, meaning that the state is determining which books you can read and which movies you can see," she said.
"But I actually think this is the right thing to do," she said. "I've personally witnessed many negative situations."
Some information consumers are incapable of distinguishing extremist ideas from genuine Islam, Rakhmonova said, adding that if the dissemination of radicalism online is not stopped, it could have major repercussions for the younger generation.