The NI Interview
issue 316 - September 1999
Eric Walberg profiles a journalist fighting on the
frontiers of media freedom in Uzbekistan.
Natasha Shulepina was born with journalism in her blood. A dynamic, upbeat Russian, single and energetic, she is on almost all counts an anomaly in this highly traditional society – a society that is 80 per cent Uzbek and Muslim. She works for the paper Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East), where her beat is economic, health, environmental and social matters. She is a thorn in the side of the authorities yet was awarded last year’s government-sponsered Shuhrat (renown) award. Natasha has a friendly and open face and is a careful listener, putting you immediately at ease. When she speaks her words flow quickly and passionately, leaving you groping to follow the carefully catalogued details filed away in her mind. Her writing is a bit long-winded – probably a holdover from the Soviet days when it was wise to bury any criticism deep in the third column of your story.
Her exposés – at least those that get past the ever-vigilant censor – provide a fascinating look at how the wheels get greased in a society where the press must serve the state. Controversial material – sometimes even whole articles – are removed, but if a controversy does make it into print it often appears the same day on the appropriate official’s desk for corrective action. Writing here has an impact that journalists in the West might well envy.
Uzbekistan is at the heart of Central Asia, but it has been cut off from rest of the world since the decline of the Silk Road trading route some three centuries ago. Today President Islam Karimov rules with no public opposition to the political and economic direction of post-Soviet Uzbekistan. While nominally democratic, modern Uzbekistan’s political culture is in fact shaped by traditional clan-based hierarchies with strong unopposed leaders. Natasha is careful to steer clear of party politics or criticizing the president.
I was curious why Natasha didn’t follow the exodus of other Russians after independence. ‘I was born here, as were my father and grandmother,’ she protests. ‘This is my homeland, and though there are many problems, I feel they are my problems. Russians settled here more than a century ago. The Soviet period, for all its faults, left a lot of positive things – universal education, equality for women and minorities, at least in theory,’ she adds with a smile, ‘The backlash against Russians in the early years of independence petered out quickly. People realize Russia is a window on the West. If we’re not to sink into a fratricidal or religious war like Tadjikistan or Afghanistan, we must see our minorities as an asset, not a liability. While I’m Russian by birth, I consider myself an internationalist living in a multicultural society. With open borders and the Internet, the whole world is our society now.’
I wondered about the role of the press in this difficult period. ‘It’s vital to act as a watch dog. After the years of stagnation, we are faced with a situation where the rules are constantly changing, where money can lead us down a slippery slope. For instance, there is a serious problem of land grabbing now. It’s very easy to grease a bureaucrat’s palm, and then do whatever you like. A massive antenna appeared mysteriously atop an apartment building. Residents complained to me so I wrote an article called “Who owns the roofs?” We forced the local khokimiat (city council) to order the cellular phone company to remove it. Then there was the construction site that appeared in the courtyard of a quiet apartment complex. The shady yard where women hung their wash out and children chased soccer balls was turned into a two-storey office building, leaving residents barely room to move. The local khokimiat had decided it was theirs. Pravda Vostoka contacted the chief city architect, who hadn’t approved the building and refused to because of danger from earthquakes. The newspaper exposed the situation and the building was actually torn down.’
One of Natasha’s main tasks is to expose the Soviet-era environmental skeletons. While the disastrous Aral Sea situation gets all the headlines, Tashlak, in the Fergana valley, recently got national coverage thanks to Natasha’s efforts. The petrochemical industry there was the pride and joy of the Soviet era. But an oil spill at an old refinery dumped 300,000 tons of oil over a fifteen-year period. The water has been undrinkable ever since. A woman who lit a torch to peer into an old well in search of water inadvertently set it on fire. Natasha’s exposé last September resulted in the Deputy Prime Minister issuing a resolution the next day demanding a clean-up and assistance to the local population.
The rush to build new industry all-too-often means ecological expertise is sidelined. The challenge of the press is crucial here. A new oil refinery in Bukhara was built on geologically unstable land. Ground water, very close to the surface, is already polluted with oil. Pravda Vostoka published a critical article in August. That same day company management held a meeting, brought in local state ecological and geological experts and committed itself to cleaning up its act.
‘We had to fight to get these articles published because of the toes that got stepped on, but actions were taken immediately as a result. The press is the only vehicle for alerting the bureaucracy that things are not as they claim. Without us, the risk of instability and social crisis would be much higher. Of course it would be better not to worry about censorship but that’s not the only problem. Officials are very reluctant to be interviewed or give out any information. It’s partly a matter of tradition, both Asian and Soviet. But sometimes it’s because they really do have something to hide. I don’t see myself as a crusader. The society is moving forward cautiously, so steps are gradual.’
No heroes, but then the world is made up of small people who are doing their best under the circumstances.