Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Court journalism is an important part of a functioning democracy and integral to the rule of law and human rights.  Known often as the “Fourth Estate,” the ability of the media to report accurately on what happens in the courtroom is the best way to ensure fairness and transparency in trials of the accused, where each person is presumed innocent until proven otherwise by the State.

This is one of the areas where the United Nations Development Programme in Uzbekistan is supporting the Government to create a modern, prosperous state.  Together with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, UNDP recently held a workshop outside the capital of Tashkent to improve national court journalism practices. The seminar, which was attended by judges, court staff and media professionals, was part of the ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project of the three entities.

At the event, participants agreed on need to develop more comprehensive procedural rules for court journalism, to improve journalist training on how to cover court cases, and expand the online press service for journalists. While these agreed directions of change were an important outcome, equally beneficial were the conversations between presentations which tackled a dilemma every country faces: Balancing the rights of citizens to know what happens inside courtrooms, with people’s right to justice and a fair trial.

Each country handles this delicate issues differently, with some allowing full access to record and print what they want, such as in the United States, to others that order media blackouts during important trials, such as in Canada, so as to avoid influencing a jury. There is no accepted international best practice.

Aziz Abidov, head of the Supreme Court press office aknowledged the words we exchanged through this training were franker than those shared ever before between journalists and judges in Uzbekistan. “Judges said they were under pressure to respond to journalists, and needed reporters to tell all sides of cases, while journalists said they needed better access to information on specific cases and more broadly on how courts function, to keep the public informed.”

Future events like this month’s training will be critical in building consensus on these issues, that directly influence the protection of human rights in Uzbekistan.

Strong foundations to build on

The expansion of open journalism in Uzbekistan has been as meteoric as other developments made through the 2017-2021 national reform process. In particular the law ‘On mass media’ was amended in 2018 to reflect global standards in protecting journalist rights, while a dedicated press ombudsman and an ethics code for journalists were also created. These improvements saw Uzbekistan’s World Press Freedom Index ranking jump from 166th in 2014 to 156th in 2020.

Moreover, a national court journalism practice has been launched through the Law ‘On the procedure for the presence of journalists in court sessions’ (2018), and the Supreme Court Resolution ‘On ensuring openness of judicial proceedings and the right to get information on court activities’ (2020).

The ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project played a key role not only in setting up these laws, but also in building the digital face of the Supreme Court and the courts system as a whole (sud.uz), and strengthening the courts’ team of PR professionals led by Mr. Abidov.

“The doors of courts have been opened in recent years, with joint events having been organized for judges, courts staff, and my journalist and blogger colleagues around Uzbekistan,” said Tursunali Akbarov, reporter at the Xabar.uz analytical news portal. “It is very positive that earlier this year journalists were involved in the decision-making process for the Resolution of the Supreme Court that increased the freedoms of reporters to attend judicial proceedings, obtain information needed to understand these processes, and share that information with the public.”

Global best practices have been applied in building this national court journalism profession, particularly those compiled in the Rule of Law project report ‘Global Experience in Journalist-Court Relations’. It has been critical that in order to best keep Uzbekistan’s citizens informed, and ensure their rights to justice and free expression are protected, these international examples must be considered through the lens of Uzbekistan’s unique culture and society.

National processes illuminated by global insights

Many parallels were drawn between national and international experiences shared by experts at December’s event, indicating that the challenges faced in building a national court journalism profession are not unique to Uzbekistan.

Senior judges explained the mechanisms that allow journalists to report on cases heard at national criminal, administrative, economic and civil courts. Professor Beruniy Alimov of the Faculty of International Journalism at the Uzbek State University of World Languages, emphasized that in order to do their jobs well, court journalists must understand both their professional rights and responsibilities.

Meanwhile the presentations made by Dr. Jonathan Peters of the University of Georgia in the United States, and by Dr. Tim Crook of Goldsmiths, University of London, presented the successes and challenges their home countries have faced in achieving a balance between the media’s rights to gather and publish information on cases, and citizen’s rights to fair and impartial trials.

“What was most useful about these talks is that they made us aware that the obstacles we face in Uzbekistan have also been encountered in nations that are often considered role-model democracies. These other countries have experienced their own triumphs and difficulties in managing the natural tensions between journalists and courts,” said Abidov.

Learning from the experiences of others to build the best possible foundation for court journalism in Uzbekistan

The training also reviewed the practicalities behind strengthening court journalism, including making sure rules are well-defined for all parties involved and that digital resources for journalists are intuitive and fast to use, while also highlighting plans to introduce PR staff in regional courts. Many of these proposals are already reflected in the Rule of Law project’s plans for 2021.

The questions posed related mostly to building professional relationships.  These included questions such as: 1) Under what circumstances should judges be interviewed by journalists?; What rules of decorum should exist in courts?;  Is it better to have stricter or more lenient media guidelines?; and: What consequences should be in place if journalists contravene these directions? Again, the answers to these questions were reviewed with Uzbekistan’s unique circumstances.

Crossing a great divide

Equally important as the training’s presentations and exercises, were the times spent outside the conference room, when the stresses of work were absent and there was time to discuss the larger issues.

“This two-day period in the mountains outside Tashkent City has been a chance to explore what our different professions have in common: the desire to ensure justice is done, and to make clear and accessible information available to the public,” said Judge Shamsiddin Tajiev.

Journalist Tursunali Akbarov took a more figurative view of the situation - “Right now there’s a broad chasm, with journalists on one side and judges on the other. A bridge needs to be built for the courts to work with the media, and vis-versa, in an environment of mutual respect. We need to have dialogue between the two sides.”

With more meetings like this one to be held in 2021, the bridges will be built slowly but surely and the fourth estate in Uzbekistan will be further strengthened. 

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