Starring TV Role for Tajik Leader

Concern that blanket TV coverage of President Rahmonov is part of shift to greater authoritarianism.

Starring TV Role for Tajik Leader

Concern that blanket TV coverage of President Rahmonov is part of shift to greater authoritarianism.

The increasing television coverage given to Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov has raised concerns that a personality cult may be under way.

Wherever President Rahmonov goes, state television and private TV channels have to broadcast all his speeches - whether they are about international relations or potatoes. Then they repeat them.

Even the channel which rebroadcasts Moscow’s RTR station in Tajikistan takes a break from normal scheduling and shows the president instead.

“There is not much choice of television channel in our country,” said Salim Habibov, who lives in the capital Dushanbe. “You come home tired from work, and you have to watch programmes about politics.”

The way the broadcast media report on Rahmonov’s activities changed markedly a year ago, when his speeches would normally be shown once, on the state-run channels.

In early August, there was wall-to-wall coverage of a conference on potatoes which the president happened to be attending. News bulletins carried regular updates over the two days the meeting lasted, and the airwaves were cleared for a special programme on his remarks.

Tajiks are particularly annoyed because programmes suddenly switch to the presidential specials without any prior announcement. “Quite honestly, it’s not very nice when you’re watching your favourite film on the Russian channel, and suddenly it is interrupted and a summit or a meeting is shown instead,” said Dushanbe resident Munira Qayumova. “It just irritates people. They could at least warn us in advance, and then you could plan your evening differently.”

Some analysts are warning that the change brings Tajikistan closer to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where state media pursue thriving personality cults of the two presidents, and news programmes often consist of lengthy transmissions of their speeches.

“I think that the authorities’ behaviour is wrong. It bears the marks of an authoritarian regime,” said Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party. “Tajik citizens have the [constitutional] right to choose alternative sources of information, and they should decide for themselves whether to listen to speeches by the president or any other official, or to watch sports, entertainment or news programmes.”

Rahmonov has been Tajikistan’s leader since 1992, and in June this year he secured a change to the constitution which will allow him to seek a third term as president in 2006, and a fourth after that. He faces a parliamentary election next year, and in recent months there have been concerns that he is trying to marginalise the already weak opposition, in particular the Islamic Rebirth Party.

The president has in the past insisted that he should not be the focus for orchestrated public praise. Nearly two years ago, he ordered local officials to remove portraits of him from public buildings, and some have done so.

According to Hakimov, the president is being given a higher profile not because his government is gaining in strength, but because it is unpopular. Economic and social policies are failing, but the authorities think that if they put out enough material they can still persuade the public that their policies are “the right ones”, he told IWPR.

IWPR approached various government and media bodies involved in the broadcasts. Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, head of the research and information department in Rahmonov’s office, said, “Our department does not deal with these issues, and you should consult Tajik television.”

At state television and radio, first deputy head Muhammad Ghoib also refused to comment, saying merely that the government had issued “orders”.

Saidumron Saidov is chief editor at the SM-1 station in the northern city of Khujand, one of the independent broadcasters which has taken to relaying presidential speeches. Interviewed by IWPR, he suggested that his station had volunteered to do so, “Under the terms of our license… we have the right to show national television programmes, including speeches by the president, so that is what we do.”

Media analysts say, however, that the government could rescind the license of any independent broadcaster which refuses to toe the line.

To find out why Russian television was being interrupted to show Rahmonov’s speeches, IWPR approached Rahmatillo Musharipov, general director of Tajikteleradiokom, the firm which transmits all TV and radio programmes. He too was unable to explain the policy. “ We are a state enterprise and we carry out the government’s orders,” he said. But IWPR was told by TV officials that the Moscow station was broadcast over a wider area of the country than Tajikistan’s own state channel, and the authorities did not want to pass up a chance to carry their message to the remotest villages.

According to Junaid Ibodov, a lawyer specialising in media, the authorities do not have the legal right to dictate what goes out on privately-owned TV channels, unless a national state of emergency has been declared. And, he said, state broadcasters are only obliged to carry official statements, rather than remarks. So technically, the authorities could be challenged in the courts.

There is no sign of this happening, though. All the indications are that Tajik viewers will just have to get used to long speeches, or switch off.

Nargis Zokirova is a correspondent for the Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper in Tajikistan.

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