Tajik Journalists Living Dangerously

Journalists in Tajikistan struggle against the twin spectres of censorship and intimidation

Tajik Journalists Living Dangerously

Journalists in Tajikistan struggle against the twin spectres of censorship and intimidation

Freedom of the press is still a long way off in Tajikistan, despite the country declaring itself "free, independent and democratic" nine years ago.

Since then, 40 journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances. Police investigations in the overwhelming majority of cases have come to naught.

A recent report from the international monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, stated what every journalist here knows only too well, "In practice, the freedom of the press in Tajikistan is rigidly limited." Those who question the official line, it said, are barred from working.

Tajik journalists are so wary of criticising the authorities in any way that self-censorship has become second nature.

"There is no freedom of the press in Tajikistan," said one journalist working for the western press, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Journalists are afraid to write what they think because they have to live here."

Nor is it only officials who give journalists good reason to be worried, he continues. "Try and write something about the former fighters of the United Tajik Opposition or something about the drugs business and you can expect trouble," the journalist added.

Of course, not all journalists who write critically of the "powers that be" risk getting a bullet in the head.

The Tajik authorities have more refined methods of reining in wayward reporters, such as removing their accreditation or forbidding them from having anything printed at state publishing houses. In extreme cases, the publication employing the journalist will be closed down.

A couple of years ago, the authorities refused to renew the accreditation of Iraida Guseinova from the Moscow newspaper, Pravda-5. She had been bold enough to write that prostitution is the most popular profession in Tajikistan.

Alexei Vasilievski, correspondent for the IMA-PRESS agency, was arrested by the authorities on the spurious charge of narcotics possession. The real reason for his arrest was a series of interviews he had conducted with opposition figures.

When two Russian-language newspapers planned to print interviews with people the government did not approve of, they were forbidden from using state-run publishing facilities.

Last year, in the run-up to presidential elections, the Junbish newspaper printed the opinions of alternative candidates and attempted to criticise the activities of the government. It was closed with no official reason given.

The independent radio station, NIC, was censored before it had even begun broadcasting. The only possible motive was the authorities' fear that it intended to criticise them.

But perhaps the most difficult assignment for journalists is reporting on armed conflict, which take place in Tajikistan weekly. Law enforcement officials prevent reporters covering such incidents and refuse to comment on them.

After the most recent incident, when a car belonging to the EU Office in Dushanbe was blown up, journalists were simply driven away. One cameraman from the Russian State Television and Radio Company had his videocassette forcibly removed by police. The authorities clearly didn't want the explosion publicised, as it might tarnish Tajikistan's reputation internationally.

Sometimes the situation can become absurd, with infuriated police accusing journalists of causing explosions and other incidents.

A recent run-in with the Russian mass media has not helped matters. The Tajik authorities thought Russian journalists hadn't paid enough attention to a series of political events, such as a meeting of the heads of state of the Central Asian Economic Union. The Foreign Affairs Ministry officially questioned the need for them to remain in the country.

There are several independently printed publications here. But the word "independent" is almost meaningless. All are afraid of criticising the government, so most content themselves with reprinting articles from the trashier Russian magazines, which have nothing to do with real political events in the country.

Vladimir Davlatov is pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe.

Support our journalists