Tajik Government Accused of Online Media Clampdown
Tajik journalists are fighting back against what they say is a concerted attempt by their government to stifle the internet, one of the last remaining outlets for free speech.
Organisers of a campaign for “100 Days for Freedom” for the Tajik internet, launched at the beginning of October, said 50 websites were being blocked by the authorities without the required court orders being issued. They called for an end to unlawful blocking of websites, and also criticised internet provider companies for succumbing to government pressure.
The 50 sites include 15 that were blocked this summer, including the Russia-based Centrasia.ru and Fergana.ru, the leading Tajik news agency Asia Plus, and even the BBC’s Tajik service. These seem to have been blocked mainly because of their coverage of a wave of fighting in Badakshan in July and August. Access to 14 of the 15 has since been restored.
The 15th, the website of leading Muslim cleric Haji Akbar Turajonzoda, remains inaccessible.
In July, a massed military offensive to root out a group of armed men led by a renegade commander resulted in street battles and eventually an uneasy truce in Khorog, Badakhshan’s main town. (See Tajik Rebels Lay Down Arms in Badakhshan.) The government faced accusations, reported in the media, that the operation was excessive, put civilians in harm’s way unnecessarily, and might have been planned in advance, rather than a reaction to events on the ground.
As for those news sites blocked previously, the common theme seems to be their reporting on President Imomali Rahmon and members of his family.
Campaigners argue that existing internet curbs intensified during the Badakhshan unrest, and are likely to continue and worsen as Tajikistan heads towards a presidential election next year.
Media rights groups behind the campaign now plan to ask Tajikistan’s Constitutional Court to examine whether the government’s actions are lawful.
The “100 days” campaign does not cover 12 Islamic extremist and similar websites that are subject to a Supreme Court ban.
Media experts say that because of the immediacy and accessibility of online news, it is seen as more of a threat to government than print or even broadcast media.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, one of the groups behind the campaign, told IWPR that the authorities feared online media simply because they offered alternative sources of news.
“They want everyone to say in unison that everything is fine, that we don’t have any problems, and that we’re making progress,” he said.
While Karshiboev pointed to criticism of the president and his family, and of the government generally, as the usual trigger for a website to be blocked, Asia Plus executive director Zebo Tajibaeva said her agency’s troubles began with its summer’s coverage of events in Badakhshan.
Although officials accused Asia Plus of one-sided reporting of the conflict, Tajibaeva said her journalists made every effort to get government members to comment.
“No one wanted to comment or to provide information,” she said. “What we did manage to get was unofficial information quoting combatants, local residents and informal leaders.”
Tajibaeva said Asia Plus had lost at least 20,000 US dollars in revenues, including advertising, because of the disruption. Although access to the site was restored in September, Asia Plus managers are pressing for an official explanation both from the state telecoms agency and from web providers.
In September, state telecoms agency chief Beg Zuhurov denied ordering a block on Asia Plus, and blamed the provider companies instead. He insisted Asia Plus was not on a list of sites deemed to be publishing negative or libellous information about Tajik officials.
Another news agency, TojNews, began experiencing problems in September. Saymiddin Dustov, who heads the Indem organisation which set up Tojnews five years ago, says it has been blocked on 11 occasions during its existence.
“This year, we set up the first unmoderated discussion forum, and this played a role in the [site] getting blocked,” he said.
Turajonzoda, whose personal site has been blocked since May, predicted that pressure on media would grow as next year’s election approached, although he questioned why the authorities would worry since President Rahmon was certain to win another term in office.
“Maybe it’s just a fear of comments and views that different from theirs,” he said.
IWPR contacted the state communications agency repeatedly for a comment on its position, without success. The responses included a staff member promising to put someone up for interview, but not delivering; another official saying the matter had nothing to do with the agency; and phones not being picked up.
However, the deputy director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, which is linked to the presidential administration, did offer a justification for blocking certain sites.
“It’s impossible to completely block sites and deny access to the internet, but doing so for short periods can be essential for security reasons,” Saifullo Safarov said, adding that less well-informed members of the public were liable to panic or be misled by certain kinds of information.
Individual internet companies, meanwhile, have been reluctant to talk about their role in blocking sites.
The head of the Association of Internet Service Providers, Asomiddin Atoev, confirmed that instructions to block sites came from state authorities with no accompanying court order. He also acknowledged that when some provider companies pleaded technical maintenance as a reasons for bringing down websites, this was not entirely accurate.
The association’s lawyer, Parvina Ibodova, added that no legislation existed to define reasons for halting web access, so it was hard to argue that anyone had broken the law by doing so.
She said provider companies probably felt bound by clauses in their operating licenses allowing the state regulator to request the closure of websites.
“But everything should go through all the judicial mechanisms and all the relevant procedures,” she added.
Zarina Ergasheva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.