Protests Mount Over Tajik Newspaper Lawsuits

Series of libel actions looks suspiciously like concerted campaign against free press ahead of election.

Protests Mount Over Tajik Newspaper Lawsuits

Series of libel actions looks suspiciously like concerted campaign against free press ahead of election.

Saturday, 20 February, 2010
Libel actions against leading newspapers in Tajikistan have sparked concerns that the authorities are trying to muzzle the press ahead of the February 28 parliamentary election.

The first hearing of the case against the Asia Plus, Faraj and Ozodagon newspapers is scheduled for February 23, following unsuccessful attempts to agree an out-of-court-settlement. What makes this court case somewhat unusual is that the three plaintiffs are themselves judges – two of them from the Supreme Court.

The judges are seeking over 1.2 million US dollars in damages from the three papers, which they say committed defamation by reporting on a press conference given last month by a lawyer acting on behalf of a group of people convicted of corruption last year. One of the plaintiffs, Supreme Court judge Nur Nurov, has requested that the newspapers be closed down until legal action is concluded.

On January 26, three days before legal proceedings were launched against the three papers, a court in Dushanbe upheld an earlier ruling that imposed a fine of nearly 70,000 dollars on the weekly publication Paykon. The fine was originally ordered in October after Tajikstandart, a government agency that monitors the quality of imported goods, won a libel case over the weekly’s decision to publish an open letter from businessmen critical of the agency’s work.

Also on January 26, Tajikistan’s agriculture ministry brought a libel action against Millat, another leading paper, claiming damages of around 230,000 dollars for an allegedly defamatory report on corruption published in December.

This flurry of cases involving respected, independent-minded newspapers provoked protests from local and international watchdog groups, some of whom argued that it smacked of a concerted attempt to silence the press ahead of the parliamentary ballot.

"The Tajik authorities must stop using the judicial system to harass independent news media", the press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said in a February 1 statement that referred to actions taken against all five newspapers.

A week later, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, described lawsuits initiated by high-ranking officials in countries like Tajikistan as "dangerous attempts at censorship".

"In order to freely exercise their right to report, media outlets should not be held liable for publishing statements made by identified sources,” he said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, noted that the damages sought against Asia Plus, Faraj and Ozadagon could bankrupt them.

“The fact that the plaintiffs in this case are powerful judges sends a chilling message to the independent press,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova.

A group of Tajik media NGOs also expressed concern over the increasing number of expensive lawsuits being brought against independent press outlets, warning that this could lead to more and more curbs on media freedom.

Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, NANSMIT, told CPJ he believed libel laws were being used as part of an official campaign to silence critical media ahead of the election.

The chairman of Tajikistan’s Union of Journalists, Akbarali Sattorov, agreed.

“However one looks at it, this is pressure on freedom of expression, all the more so on the eve of an election,” he said. “And it isn’t just some individuals filing a lawsuit – these are judges, ministries and state committees.”

Muhtor Bokizoda, chairman of the Remembering and Protecting Journalists Foundation, recalled that in January 2005 – one month before the last parliamentary election – he was convicted of using electricity illegally to power a private printing house. At the time he was editor-in-chief of Nerui Sukhan, a newspaper that criticised the government and president. As a result, the printing house was closed and Nerui Sukhan was unable to publish for the next year, since no state-owned print house would deal with it.

In an interview for IWPR, Judge Nurov denied the libel action had any political backdrop, insisting that he and his colleagues were acting as private individuals.

“We have brought our complaints, but this does not mean things will be decided in our favour,” said Nurov.

Media activists and analysts insist, however, that the defamation cases form part of a trend.

“It’s a very worrying situation, and unless this trend is halted, it could lead to media restrictions and an increase in self-censorship among journalists,” said Karshiboev, adding that journalists were under threat merely for “publishing information in the public interest; for doing their job”.

Political analyst Parviz Mullojonov believes the government is hostile to media outlets that dare to criticise officials.

“The growth of independent media is causing discontent and hostility on the part of certain circles and individuals,” he said. “Pressure on media from those quarters has been increasing, applied in an apparently subtle manner. But it was clear that sooner or later, this would manifest itself in an acute way.”

Media experts, lawyers and rights activists discussed the problems facing independent media when they gathered for a round-table on February 5 organised jointly by IWPR and NANSMIT in Dushanbe. The outcome was a decision to set up a group that will provide legal assistance for journalists, particularly those facing defamation cases.

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