As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on restricting movement, Uzbekistan is stepping up its efforts to stem the panic.
According to new legislative changes, the management or storage of materials in order to create panic among the population is now liable to a fine of up to 89,200,000 UZS (more than $ 9,200) or three years of ‘imprisonment.
Those who share hoarded material face a prison sentence of up to five years.
Spreading false information about the coronavirus is punishable by two years’ correctional work, while publishing “false news” in the media risks up to three years in prison.
The financial repercussions are significant, given that the minimum wage in Uzbekistan is $ 60 a month.
Person who violates quarantine rules can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, and people appearing in public without masks face fines of up to UZS 1.1 million, almost double the salary minimum.
According to Khudoyor Meliyev, the deputy minister of justice, people diagnosed with COVID-19 who have been placed in quarantine rooms will have to temporarily give away their mobile phones and other equipment as well as their bank cards, as these items could carry the virus.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in December 2016, the former authoritarian country has been on the path of liberal reform.
Freedom of expression is one of the areas in which the country has made significant progress.
Previously banned news websites and social media platforms have been unblocked and citizens have long-awaited space to criticize the government and voice their concerns.
But with new panic rules, critics fear Uzbekistan seeks to restrict civil liberties.
Regarding the rule on handing over phones and bank cards, there are concerns that the goal is to prevent the leakage of information and photographs of conditions in quarantine facilities.
“One of the very first people to return from China filmed the conditions in the quarantine rooms [in Uzbekistan] and it was a disaster. So the authorities don’t want the truth to be leaked to the media, “said Timur Karpov, photographer and local activist.
“They don’t know how to react to the crisis, so they use the methods they know, and these are authoritarian.
“The authorities seem to be afraid of losing control, so they are doing their best to regain it. That’s why they apply all the restrictions. What is important to me is the duration of these restrictions when the pandemic occurs because you can easily introduce such measures, but it is not so easy to reverse them. “
Tashkent has been locked out since March 24.
Gatherings of more than three people are prohibited, mMost businesses have been ordered to work from home, including government departments, and only vehicles with special permission are allowed to move around the city. The capital’s construction sites, which are undergoing a large-scale upgrade, are still in operation.
All other provinces of Uzbekistan are subject to coronavirus bans involving movement and collection restrictions.
The human rights ombudsman did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
As some critics feared the loss of civil liberties, oOther activists and journalists told Al Jazeera that government action is essential.
“The establishment of strict control of the situation is the best scenario in our realities because the majority of the population, even in Tashkent, does not take the pandemic seriously and ignores all the recommendations,” said a local lawyer. , on condition of anonymity.
“If the government ends the harsh measures after the end of the pandemic, I would praise it for an intelligent response to the crisis. “
A local reporter who did not want to be named said: “The state explains the epidemic in a civilized manner to those who are its victims for the first time, the deployed police force does not violate civil rights and remind people of the importance of quarantine. The authorities openly answer questions from ordinary citizens. during daily live television briefings and official sources spread information about the coronavirus to people literally every minute.
“The coronavirus epidemic has been a challenge for the government, testing its openness, and I would give Mirziyoyev’s government eight out of ten points. It is almost impossible to imagine such an opening in Uzbekistan four years ago. “