Tajik Government's Fury Over Conflict Reporting
Tajikistan's government has fallen out badly with the media, accusing journalists of poor and inaccurate reporting on recent clashes with militants in the east of the country. Media rights groups have expressed alarm at curbs placed on press and internet news outlets, while reporters say they were unable to check facts because of a virtual blackout on information about the violence.
The stand-off has got steadily worse. Media representatives refuse to acknowledge any possibility that some of the reporting might have been skewed. By placing curbs on internet and press publications, the authorities have not helped matters.
In an October 18 statement, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic voiced concern at the “ongoing deterioration of the media freedom situation” resulting from newspaper closures and blocked access to news websites.
Officials in Tajikistan reacted furiously to the way the media reported clashes between government troops and armed militants who killed 25 soldiers in a single encounter in the Rasht valley on September 19. The attackers are believed to be led by former opposition commanders from the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, possibly assisted by militants coming in from neighbouring Afghanistan. (For details of the fighting, see Tajik Authorities Struggle to Quell Militants.)
The first criticism of media coverage came on September 25 when Tajik state TV carried a message from the defence ministry’s press office accusing private media outlets of biased reporting. The statement singled out an article in the weekly Faraj that urged the defence ministry to apologise to the families of the soldiers killed in the ambush and called for the resignation of the defence minister.
Seventeen media outlets and organisations responded to the ministry statement with one of their own, rejecting the allegations of bias, defending their right to report, and accusing defence officials of trying to persecute them.
The next move came from Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloev, in the shape of a strongly-worded statement of his own, published by the government news agency Khovar on October 4.
Khairulloev was incensed at what he felt was a “note of glee” in some of the reporting on the conflict, and said this hardly constituted true press freedom.
“Most of the articles by Tajikistan’s independent newspapers about a brutal attack by hired terrorists on a defence ministry convoy smell of support for this shameful action by ruthless murderers. Don’t our esteemed journalists realise that offering support to terrorists equals abetting terrorism, and that supporting terrorists is a serious crime?” he said.
“Many newspapers show no sign of condemning the odious actions of bloodthirsty terrorists, with the exception of a few that can be counted on the fingers of on one hand.”
The minister also referred to a wider political context in which some opposition politicians have accused the government rather than the armed militants of being principally to blame for the conflict. He dismissed opposition calls for a negotiated end to the fighting.
“At a time like this, they’re calling for dialogue and negotiations. One would like to ask, dialogue with whom? With terrorists and murderers, or with you leaders of political parties?” he asked.
As the dispute became more heated, three newspapers – Paykon, Istiqlol and Faraj – found themselves unable to publish, and access was blocked to local and foreign websites including avesta.tj, Tjknews.com, ferghana.ru and centrasia.ru.
The director of Oila-Print, Siyovush Hamdamov, which used to print all three papers, said the block on printing had nothing to do with politics – Istiqlol and Paykon owed it a lot of money. Faraj has now broken ties with the printing house as paper prices have gone up.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, who heads the National Association of Independent Media, dismissed these contractual questions and said, “It’s absolutely clear that what’s going on is the method where an official makes a phone call and issues instructions not to print them.”
The head of the Association of Internet Providers, Parvina Ibodova, said its members had been ordered by the communications ministry to block certain websites. She told the Asia-Plus news agency that they had written to request clarification from the ministry, but in the meantime had little option but to comply.
In response to what they see as intimidation, media rights groups have rallied to the cause.
Karshiboev’s association wrote to the defence minister on October 14 asking him to provide specific names of media outlets and journalists in relation to his allegations of supporting terrorism. A week later, a group of private media outlets and media rights groups set up a new Committee to Protect the Professional Rights of Journalists, which aims to put a stop to pressures on the media, restore unrestricted access to online media resources and print facilities, and in general get back to the same level of media freedom that existed until the dispute broke out.
The committee says its website will serve as a platform for media outlets and individual journalists unable to publish elsewhere.
The positions taken by the government and the media remain as far apart as ever.
Media representatives accuse the authorities of shooting the messenger instead of addressing alleged failings in the conduct of military operations in eastern Tajikistan.
Journalists also say the authorities have made it extremely difficult to get hold of information on which to base accurate reports on the ambush and on other incidents such as a helicopter crash during the security operation. They say that when they rang the defence and interior ministries, no one picked up the phones.
IWPR reporters had a similar experience when they tried to contact both ministries to get their views on the media reporting dispute.
Zebo Tajibaeva, acting director of the Asia-Plus news agency and until recently an IWPR editor, called on journalists to show restraint so as to avoid creating even greater tensions.
“I’d recommend that journalists avoid pouring oil on the flames at the moment. I think it would be better to pay more attention to behaving professionally, doing one’s job and providing objective, reliable information,” she said. “[Protest] banners and court cases won’t scare anyone and won’t resolve anything. The reactions can wait until the Rasht operation is over.”
Lochin Karimov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.