Tajik Journalist's Arrest Sparks Protest

Was Jumaboy Tolibov jailed for getting on the wrong side of a powerful local official, or as part of a wider organised campaign against free speech?

Tajik Journalist's Arrest Sparks Protest

Was Jumaboy Tolibov jailed for getting on the wrong side of a powerful local official, or as part of a wider organised campaign against free speech?

The continuing detention without trial of a journalist who wrote articles critical of a local prosecutor has rung alarm bells in Tajikistan, with allegations that the government is cracking down on the media.

More than 120 people held a protest in the town of Aini region in the northern Sogd province on June 8 to demand the release of Jumaboy Tolibov, arrested on April 24 while visiting the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

He has been in jail for month and a half, ever since he was arrested on the orders of the prosecution service, but has not been charged with any crime, although a prosecutor says he is under investigation for the offences of hooliganism and resisting an officer of the law.

But in a letter to the National Association of Independent Media, Tolibov’s wife Sanavbar said the real reason for his arrest was a series of articles in which he had criticised the chief prosecutor for Aini district.

Tolibov told his own story in a letter to the media association, saying he had approached prosecutor Sobit Azamov for information about the crime rate in Aini district, but the latter had responded by insulting him and beating him up. He then wrote two articles in the Minbari Khalk newspaper, the mouthpiece of the governing People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, one about the high crime rate and the second about his encounter with Azamov.

“I was hoping that after the [first] article was published, the competent government agencies would at last investigate the situation and find out the reasons why things were as they were,” Tolibov wrote.

Azamov’s superior, Izatullo Muhamadiev, deputy prosecutor for Sogd region, rejected claims that Tolibov’s detention was connected with his journalistic activities. He confirmed that two criminal cases had been launched against the reporter but refused to give any more details.

Tolibov has written to senior Tajik officials about his case - the presidential administration, parliament and the prosecutor general – but received identical replies from all three insisting that the Aini prosecutor had committed no crime and that Tolibov’s accusations were unfounded. They even suggested that he had inflicted his injuries on himself.

Human rights organisations have condemned Tolibov’s detention without due process, with Reporters Without Borders calling on the Tajik authorities to release him immediately. The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed similar concerns.

Analysts say Tolibov’s arrest fits a wider pattern of tougher controls on the media which started before the parliamentary election held in February, and which some are now predicting will last at least until a presidential election scheduled for November 2006.

More immediately, the authorities have clearly been shaken by the recent violence in Uzbekistan and the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

“The example of Kyrgyzstan is all too clear for us,” a senior official in the Tajik presidential office told IWPR on condition of anonymity. “The liberal [President Askar] Akaev gave too much freedom to the independent press there, and that led to his shameful resignation.”

Political analyst Tursun Kabirov said the Tolibov case is a clear example of the way officials use their power to subdue “awkward journalists.” The prosecution service has become the “executioner’s sword” employed to implement this tactic, he said.

“This process began at the beginning of last year, and has assumed a particularly acute form after the parliamentary election, and also the incidents in Kyrgyzstan and Andijan. The authorities are thus taking steps to prevent possible [Ukrainian- or Kyrgyz-style] revolutions in Tajikistan.”

The deputy head of the Social Democratic Party, Shokirjon Hakimov, says there has been a recent increase in the persecution of political figures, human rights activists and journalists.

“The fact that this persecution is being done principally by members of the various law-enforcement agencies is cause for surprise and deep regret,” said Hakimov. “It will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the development of political pluralism and democratic institutions.”

Rustam Nazarov is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Tajikistan.

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