When Not on the Wires was invited to go to Uzbekistan to train young journalists, we jumped at the opportunity to experience a country that we, at the time, knew little about.
Our first trip to to the Central Asian country was to provide training as part of a summer camp. The second trip, a couple of months later, was to train journalists who were covering a local fashion and arts week.
With cameras, tripods, laptops, mobile phones, and weeks of research behind us, we boarded our 6.5 hour Uzbek airways flight. And although we had heard and read some harrowing accounts of life in Uzbekistan under the current government, we decided to approach the country and its people without any preconceived ideas.
Our personal mandate was firstly to do what we came to do – to provide training for journalists – and secondly, to see for ourselves what Uzbekistan was all about. From our first day in Tashkent it became obvious that our best intentions to remain objective and open-minded would be put to the test, over and over again.
In a country with no press freedom and tight government control of communications, it seemed like our every move was being monitored, and that our general movements were being strictly controlled.
On a day-to-day basis we were working directly with a local organisation called the Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, known more generally as Fund Forum.
On its official site Fund Forum describes itself as “a voluntary self-controlled non governmental association of citizens and public organizations pursuing the goal of supporting domestic science, culture, education and sports.”
In practice, it was hard to tell what exactly Fund Forum was. What we knew was that it was run by the President’s controversial daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and that it hosted a range of activities and community training projects in the name of developing local arts and culture.
Our invitation to train young journalists was part of this push to develop the local arts scene, and formed a crucial part of coverage for an annual fashion and arts week dubbed ‘Style.Uz’.
'Style.Uz' is an event where many well-known international fashion designers and artists descend on Tashkent to show off their latest creations, and inspire local designers and artists to develop their own talent.
The week itself was interesting, chaotic, and harrowing all at the same time. We were constantly monitored to see what footage or photography we were collecting, and who we were talking to. We also had strict instructions about what we could and could not shoot.
Although we had very little free time, we used small windows of opportunity to venture out to experience the city and its people away from the glitz and glamour of Gulnara Karimova’s week-long event.
What we saw was a very different world to the one we were thrust into. The men, women, and children going about their everyday business painted a picture of a country still very much under the clutch of its government, with little sign of democracy. Forcing people such as fashion designer, Saida Amir, to travel to Britain to study.
The country itself is an oxymoron. We constantly came across what seemed like a government desire to appear western-like in their ways, but an equally strong refusal to allow certain freedoms.
But while we became more and more eager to do our jobs as journalists with rare access to a dictatorship, nobody could really talk to us, so gathering content and verifying information was a challenge, and in many ways stifled.
Although it was difficult to ignore obvious red herrings while we were in Uzbekistan, the most satisfying part of our trip was meeting the ordinary, everyday people, including the students we worked with.
And in the end we left Uzbekistan thinking we knew little more than what we knew when we first arrived, but at the same time feeling like we knew more than we ever thought we would know.
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