Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tajik Information Vacuum
Switch on your radio here and you will find complete silence across the FM frequency. In radio, as in other aspects of the media, the capital lags behind the rest of Tajikistan, while Tajikistan in turn lags behind the other Central Asian republics. With no national media to speak of, many here are living in an informational and cultural vacuum.
Around one in six Tajiks live in Dushanbe, which has not had a daily newspaper for ten years - almost since the country declared independence. Twelve weekly titles are published in Russian and Tajik, of which two or three are broadsheets. The rest consist of recycled Russian tabloid articles, stories from the Internet, horoscopes and jokes.
Strict self-censorship is practiced, to avoid incurring the anger of the authorities. State television mainly broadcasts folk music, old Soviet films and pirated Hollywood movies. Its news coverage is patchy, so the main source of political and cultural news for Dushanbe and its environs is the Russian channel RTR. The capital does not have a single private television or radio company.
On July 4, the State Committee for Television and Radio, SCTR, rejected a request from the Asia Plus agency to provide an FM broadcasting license. The frequency is still silent despite the fact that two companies - Radio NIC and Asia Plus - have been applying to the state committee for licenses since 1997.
In Almaty, in neighbouring Kazakstan, there are over ten private commercial radio companies broadcasting in the FM frequency. Even in Uzbekistan, where freedom of the press is generally considered to be highly restricted, there are several FM radio stations and privately-owned television companies operating in Tashkent.
One explanation for the lack of FM stations and private TV channels is that licensing remains in the hands of the SCTR, which has a monopoly over the broadcast media. Other CIS countries have long since handed licensing over to independent bodies, but not Tajikistan. Commentators point out that SCTR officials will never willingly expose their own radio and television output to competition. So long as the committee retains control of licensing, few if any licenses are likely to be granted.
With only two Internet providers in the whole country, connection to the Web is very expensive. Only three per cent of the population is currently online, mainly employees of international organisations and graduates of US-funded exchange study programmes. Very few journalists have Internet access.
Journalists also face the problem that the five administrative regions of Tajikstan differ greatly and are largely cut off from one another. For example, in Badakhshan, the most mountainous and isolated part of the country, many kishlaks - or villages - lack electricity or re-transmitters, so the inhabitants do not receive television. Newspapers are rarely delivered to remote villages.
The Khatlon region, an agricultural centre, was badly hit by the civil war and a four-year drought. There is no developed press base in the area, where the editor of a newspaper or tiny TV station may double up as a schoolteacher or agricultural specialist.
The so-called Garm group of regions or the Rasht valley of central Tajikistan, was infamous during the civil war as a base for rebels from the Islamic opposition and foreign mercenaries. The power of the local authorities is unlimited in this mountainous region. Khumats and jamoats (heads of local administration) make their own rules and keep what little media there is under tight control.
"It is very difficult to establish cooperation between colleagues who work in different regions," said Nuriddin Karshiboev, director of the National Association for Independent Media of Tajikistan. "We don't even have the means to meet regularly and discuss our problems." The association has made its main goal to protect the rights of journalists and provide legal support for members. It will also attempt to lobby the government for an input into the development and amendment of media legislation, although the authorities have shown no inclination to consult journalists in the past.
In spring of this year, resource centres were set up for journalists in four regions of Tajikistan. They will provide a place where editors and correspondents can make contact with each other and discuss the common problems they face. Significantly, the one region that has not set up such a centre is the capital.
In such a bleak landscape, the Sogd province in the north of the country - where Tajikstan's substantial Uzbek minority lives - represents a ray of light. The regional capital, Khujand, has several private and public television channels. The private radio station, Tiroz, broadcasts 24 hours a day. Residents also have access to Uzbek televsion and radio. Other cities in the region, such as Chkalovsk, Kanibadam and Isfara also enjoy a plethora of media outlets. A regional resource centre for journalists is funded by the OSCE, along with an independent news agency and the Varorud newspaper.
Inevitably, the condition of the media in any one region reflects the condition of democracy there. The north also suffers from censorship and the harassment of journalists by government and by influential business interests. The difference is that reporters are not frightened to publicise these problems. "Sogd is more democratic than other regions, so it's easier to work there," commented Maxim Filandrov, an advisor to the OSCE on media issues.
Sogd's favourable position also reflects the fact that it has enjoyed relative autonomy since Soviet times, when the leading figures in the republic administration were always proteges of Moscow. Moreover, since the area was left almost unscathed by the civil war, fewer professionals moved away. While private television companies in northern Tajik towns operate under the protection of local authorities, their independence may be considered only relative. That may be so, but people in Sogd undoubtedly have much better access to television, radio and newsprint than other Tajiks.
A comprehensive, independent national media may still be a long way off in Tajikistan, but improvement may come from an unexpected source. The Tajik parliament is preparing to pass the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, PRSP, which is intended to plot a future economic course for the country.
The success of this nine-part document will depend heavily on money from institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Mindful of the priorities of those institutions, the "Infrastructure" section of the PRSP contains concrete recommendations for improving conditions for the media, including a reform of media legislation.
Konstantin Parshin is an independent journalist in Dushanbe
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