Doniyor Turaev, Deputy Director of the Legislation and Parliamentary Research Institute
Currently, taking into account the requirements of the time, within the framework of the constitutional reform, the Basic Law of Uzbekistan is being updated by 65%. It should be noted that as a result of public discussions more than 220 thousand proposals were received to improve the current Constitution, based on the study of which a draft of a new edition of the Constitution was prepared. A referendum on the draft of a new edition of the Constitution will be held on 30 April 2023.
The draft of the new edition of the Constitution enshrines the norms aimed at strengthening the legal foundations of the institutions of a democratic, legal, social and secular state, ensuring human rights, including freedom of speech, and also reflects the norms in the field of the Internet.
In view of this, it is essential to disclose separately these new norms in the field of ensuring freedom of speech and access to the Internet.
In recent years, as a result of the reforms being implemented in Uzbekistan, legal and institutional mechanisms for supporting the activities of the media have been strengthened, legislation and practice have been improved, and the openness of the activities of state authorities has been increased. In general, the institutions of freedom of speech are being strengthened in the country. Today we can observe that the spirit of openness, objective analysis and criticism has increased in the country’s media and the Internet space. This is definitely a clear indicator of the achievements of the policy being implemented to ensure freedom of speech.
As a result of the implemented reforms, according to the Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders), Uzbekistan’s score improved by 33 points in 2022 as compared to 2016.
Naturally, the questions arise: are there any guarantees that laws will not worsen the situation in the field of ensuring freedom of speech, and how effectively does the current Constitution guarantee this protection?
To answer these questions, let’s first briefly make out what freedom of speech means?
Freedom of speech is a human right, which includes the freedom of a person to express his or her opinion, freedom to obtain and disseminate information and ideas. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Further, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, securing this important human right, determined that the use of this right imposes special duties and responsibilities, therefore, it must also be followed by certain restrictions that are provided for by law. The introduction of restrictions is necessary to respect the rights, reputation of citizens, to protect the health and morals of society, to prevent riots and to ensure the security of the state.
These are the requirements for ensuring freedom of speech, enshrined in international documents relating to human rights.
Currently, in the framework of the constitutional reform, changes are being made to the Constitution of Uzbekistan in order to strengthen the legal foundations for ensuring human rights, including freedom of speech.
It is known that the current Article 29 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. However, the above requirements were not clearly expressed in it. In addition, this article uses the words ‘and other restrictions provided by law,’ which creates an opportunity for lawmakers to excessively restrict freedom of speech. Therefore, some wordings of the norms of the laws adopted in the field of ensuring freedom of speech and its restrictions allow them to be widely interpreted, which naturally leads to problems in the implementation of this right.
In order to eliminate these shortcomings, as well as to strengthen the guarantee of the right to freedom of speech, taking into account the proposals of citizens and experts, important progressive norms are included in the new edition of the Constitution. Firstly, the rights to freedom of speech are clearly formulated; secondly, clear criteria and limits for restricting this right are determined; thirdly, a new norm that the state creates conditions for providing access to the worldwide information network Internet is included.
Now, let’s separately dwell on the question – why is it at the constitutional level that the obligation of the state to create conditions for access to the Internet is established?
The Internet in today’s realities has become more than just a means of exercising the right to freedom of speech. At present, we cannot imagine our life without the Web. Undoubtedly, it revealed to us ‘accessibility’ and ‘promptness’: in particular, the availability of communication with family members and friends, living in other parts of our planet, the availability of education, information and services, as well as promptness, which means the acceleration of receiving and transmitting information.
In addition, new professions, operating and existing on the Internet, have appeared. For example, bloggers, YouTubers, SMM specialists, etc.
In addition, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened during the COVID-19 pandemic if there had not been the Web. For example, today we can, without leaving our homes, use public services, order delivery of goods or food, by pre-paying for such services remotely, too. Plus, we can work remotely, all thanks to the Internet.
In a word, the Internet has made our life easier, accelerating progress in all industries manifoldly. At present, we can say that we simultaneously live in two spaces – offline and online.
Of course, there is a need to strengthen the protection of these opportunities.
If we look at international and foreign experience, we can observe a new constitutional trend. For example, the constitutions of Georgia and Mexico guarantee access to the Internet. In the new constitutions of some countries, such terms as social media, website, cyberspace, etc. are used. That is, guarantees of rights associated with the Web are gradually being strengthened on the constitutional level. In addition, the UN Human Rights Council considers that access to the Internet is one of the important means of exercising human rights. In particular, in a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on July 5, 2018, the Council reaffirmed that the same rights that a people have offline must also be protected in online.
Currently, the obligation of the state to provide access to the Internet lies in the fact that citizens on its territory should be provided with access to the open and safe Internet. This implies: firstly, taking measures to create conditions for access to the high-speed Internet in all regions of the country; secondly, ensuring the availability of technical infrastructure; thirdly, protection of the rights of the Internet users.
So, why is it necessary to determine this protection specifically on the constitutional level?
The statistical estimate of the Ministry of Digital Technologies shows that there were more than 12.1 million Internet users in Uzbekistan in 2016, but today this number has reached 31 million people. The coverage of the territory of Uzbekistan by the Internet in 2016 was at the level of 28%; to date, this figure has risen to 98%. Since 2016, the total bandwidth (speed) of Internet channels has been increased by almost 50 times – from 64.2 to 3,200 Gbps. The prices for Internet services for providers have decreased 30 times from 91.5 to 3 dollars per 1 Mbps.
In Uzbekistan, the development of digitalization is considered as one of the priority areas of state policy: 2020 has been declared the ‘Year of the Development of Science, Education and the Digital Economy’, and the State Program has been adopted; the ‘Digital Uzbekistan – 2030’ Strategy is being implemented; in the field of digitalization, more than 220 different priority projects are being implemented, including the ‘One Million Uzbek Coders’ project, aimed at improving the IT literacy of young people and developing the IT industry.
As a result, Uzbekistan has risen significantly in international digitalization rankings. For example, according to the World Bank’s GovTech Maturity Index, in the public services sector, Uzbekistan moved up by 37 points, becoming 43rd among 198 economies and entered the group “A” of the leading countries in the field of digital transformation. According to the Govtech Enablers Index, in 2022, our country moved up by 65 points for digital skills and innovation in public services as compared to 2020.
This is really a good result. Undoubtedly, reforms in this field should be continued and implemented in a systematic basis. But do we have enough legal and organizational mechanisms to ensure the right to access the Internet? Can we say that we have the high-speed Internet in all regions of the country? Or that our rights are well protected in the Internet space? Moreover, are there any guarantees that laws will not worsen the situation in the field of ensuring access to the Internet? Of course, these questions should be answered.
Therefore, today, ensuring universal access to the Internet has become one of the main priorities of Uzbekistan’s policy. The country intends to actively continue the initiated reforms in ensuring guarantees of access to the Internet. Consequently, the state, on the constitutional level, makes commitments to create conditions for ensuring access to the Internet.
The enshrining of this norm in the Constitution will, firstly, contribute to the improvement of our legislation and practice in this area on a systematic basis; secondly, serve the effective implementation of our rights in the Internet space and help to strengthen the security of using the Internet; thirdly, contribute to further transparency and openness of the activity of government bodies.
It is also worth noting that one of the important provisions of the new edition of the Constitution is that it enshrines the principles of a direct application of the Constitution and human rights, which will undoubtedly turn it into a valid and living Constitution.
In general, we can conclude that these norms of the new edition of the Constitution will allow raising the country’s policy in the field of ensuring freedom of speech to a new level, contribute to enhancing the culture of respect for human rights and freedom of speech in society, and will also improve conditions for ensuring access to high-quality and safe Internet.