Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America. As an anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for nearly 20 years on TV, radio and online. For the last year, she has also been reporting from inside Uzbekistan as the first-ever accredited U.S. based journalist in the country. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Imamova played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented more than 800 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari,” which covers American foreign policy, focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She speaks frequently on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences. Her analytical pieces have been published in leading academic and news outlets including Foreign Policy and The National Interest. Navbahor also is the founding President of the VOA Women’s Caucus. She began her career at the Uzbek state broadcaster in Tashkent. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University, Indiana.
How many years have you worked at VOA? And how did you get started?
"I have been working with VOA since 2001. I was hired right after 9/11. Somebody from VOA called me up and said they were expanding the service in Uzbekistan. I was a journalism student at that time, and this was a great opportunity for me to start freelancing for VOA. So I started off as a freelancer, and became full-time contractor in 2003, and became full-time employee in 2004."
Why did you choose to be a journalist at VOA?
"The reason is very simple, and I think that’s the most critical fact here. I grew up in Uzbekistan, a country with no press freedom, no experience with freedom, and formal censorship. I always wanted to be a journalist in a free world. I thought VOA is going to be a platform for me, because I could actually serve the audience that I have left behind., Producing and delivering the best Uzbek content from here was a dream job for me. VOA provides the unique opportunity to be a multimedia journalist in your own language. While we feel really sad about the lack of media freedom in many parts of the world, it’s a blessing for journalists like me to have this opportunity."
What characteristics do you think are important as a journalist?
"Building trust with your sources. Never walk away from a source just because that person is not doing a favor for you. You respect people, their time, and their privacy. Also, persuasion helps, being nice makes you approachable, be honest, be an active listener, be patient, be curious, be accessible, and be ready to get hate messages. Most important, having good “people skills” helps us as journalists."
Are there any moments, over the 15 years you’ve worked at VOA, that were memorable to you?
"The first time I went on air at VOA radio show in 2002. The first time we put out our TV show in 2003. When I lost my colleague in 2007. And of course most recently, when I became the first U.S. journalist to receive accreditation from Uzbekistan government, because that came as an acknowledgement of my hard work."
I understand the press can be quite restricted and challenged by government interference in some Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan. How do you deal with it when it comes to sensitive topics?
"Any issue can be sensitive, depending on how you look at it. If you want to be a journalist or a broadcaster, addressing those parts of the world, then you just have to be daring enough and brave enough. There is no other option. You can’t avoid addressing the hard topic, because that’s where the issue is. I tried to find the best possible sources, to get the most accurate and relevant content about any issue, any sensitive issue. So when you’re covering these so-called “sensitive issues,” your weapon is reliable sources and hard facts. When you have that information, it empowers you."
Having played multiple roles as anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, which role do you find most rewarding?
"Presenting is the best part. It’s the combination of all processes. You spend a lot of time and you work hard to collect information, research, interviewing, talking to people, and gathering data, and putting it all into a context, that’s an amazing process. Producing and putting all things together is challenging but rewarding process, because you are putting the dots together, and building a story. Presenting it, being on the air, doing the radio or TV, having this communication with the audience is an amazing experience. We are not just anchor or news reader, we don’t have those here. We are the true anchors and hosts here. We are the key players behind every production and contents that we presented. We build these shows from scratch, and every show is essentially your child. So, presenting it to the world is such a rewarding experience. When the show is over, you move on to the next show. It’s sad, but also joyful to just deliver something. I also love interacting with people. I love doing interactive interviews, I love being on live, especially on Facebook. One of the joys is also being in a targeted area and meeting the audience from everywhere, getting their praises and critiques on our programs. I would say, I enjoy each part of the processes, but presenting it, putting out the ready-to-go product is the best part of it. Being a multimedia journalist at VOA gives you a unique opportunity to do it all at the same time."
VOA Uzbek service has been on air for more than four decades now, but it has never been able to report from inside the Republic of Uzbekistan. Just recently, you become the only U.S. journalist included on the government’s list of accredited media. How did that happen? And how do you feel about it?
"Uzbekistan has changed a lot in the past one and a half year. Islam Karimov ruled from 1989 and passed away in 2016. The Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, took over. Many of us did not expect him to launch reforms, or to bring a lot of changes. We thought he would just be the guy maintaining the status quo, but he surprised us, the international media, the international community, and his own people by slowly opening the country, engaging the critics, and opening the door for human rights organizations. But they have been careful with the international media, though, so we didn’t rush. I went to Uzbekistan last summer, I learned the country was changing. There was a lot of positive energy. I had conversations with journalists, state media, and government officials, and the message was, the country was opening. We took it slowly, and by the spring of 2018, we were ready to apply for accreditation. Of course, that involved with working, engaging, and communicating with the Uzbek government, and I have always maintained the professional communication with them, that’s been very important to me, because journalists are not the enemies, they are the bridges. Within a month and a half, I got the accreditation. I was incredibly happy. From what I know, the Uzbekistan government gave me this accreditation because they trust me as a journalist, and that is the best complement to a journalist."
Can you use some adjectives to describe what the media environment is like in current Uzbekistan?
"Diverse, Reforming, Daring, Engaging, Opening"
What’s a piece of advice you would give someone who wants to work at VOA?
"It’s a world of its own, we have more than 45 languages and cultures boiling together. Everybody is a walking story here at VOA. Journalists are hard people, we are very demanding by nature, we all want to change, we are impatient, we are cynical, and we are judgmental. Just like any other media organization, there’s a certain level of hopelessness. We cover the news of the world, we cover many top stories of the world, we also cover a lot of “bad” stories of the world, and the worst of the world. It sometimes makes you feel too heavy mentally. It’s an amazing experience to work in this kind of environment. First of all, you have to be educated enough and have journalism skills, because we expect people to get here and ready to start working. We have so little time for training and mentoring, but once you are here you get to learn a lot on the go. Therefore, you better be multi-skilled, you better be flexible, you better be broad-minded, energetic, well-connected, on 24/7, have great people skills, and understand our mission. If you want to be famous and rich, this is not the field you want to be in."