ALMATY (Reuters) - Western diplomats have expressed concern over reports a senior Uzbek official threatened journalists, rare public criticism of a tightly controlled former Soviet republic that has begun opening up its economy over the past three years.
Uzbekistan has made efforts to improve its rights record since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over the Central Asian nation in late 2016 following the death of longtime ruler Islam Karimov, but government critics still complain of harassment.
Local news website Kun.uz published an audio recording last week of what it said were comments to its reporters by Tashkent mayor Jahongir Artikhojayev about their conflict with a lower-level official.
In the tape - which Kun.uz said had been recorded a few months ago - a man can be heard referring to reporters as “scum” and “children of a dog” and saying that he can make them “disappear” or frame them as being homosexual.
Earlier on Monday, Kun.uz and Artikhojayev - who has not commented on the recording - announced they had cleared up “all misunderstandings”. Two Kun.uz reporters then resigned in protest; one said he was among those insulted by the mayor.
The mayor’s office had no immediate response on Tuesday when asked for comment on the veracity of the recording or the envoys’ reaction.
The United States Embassy in Tashkent, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, commented on the incident on Twitter late on Monday.
“I am concerned with reports of threats by a high-level official towards the journalists of the Kun news agency,” OSCE representative Harlem Desir said, adding that he hoped state prosecutors “will thoroughly look into it and ensure journalists’ safety”.
The U.S. embassy retweeted the Kun.uz statement about settling its dispute with the mayor and said it rejected “violence and harassment against journalists and bloggers”.
British ambassador Tim Torlot said he was concerned by Artikhojayev’s “recent comments”, without elaborating, and said he would like to discuss the protection of journalists with him. The embassy was not immediately available to answer questions.
Uzbekistan’s media regulator urged other media not to “exaggerate” the conflict, which it said had been resolved, but said state bodies would look into it from a legal point of view.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Philippa Fletcher