Tajik Media Activists Press for Libel Law Change

First attempt to have libel provisions seen as curb on free speech struck out of the criminal code.

Tajik Media Activists Press for Libel Law Change

First attempt to have libel provisions seen as curb on free speech struck out of the criminal code.

Media rights activists in Tajikistan have launched a campaign to remove libel from the criminal law statutes, so that future court cases would only be conducted through the civil courts.

A conference on libel issues attended by media rights activists, journalists and lawyers, held in Dushanbe on October 9-10, marked the first serious attempt by civil society groups to push for change in the legislation.

Participants in the gathering, which was backed by the United Nations, the OSCE and the media development organisation Internews, agreed a statement urging Tajikistan’s government and parliament to abolish criminal law provisions relating to libel, leaving the existing civil legislation on defamation in place.

Like other former Soviet republics, Tajikistan continues to list defamation as an offence under criminal law as well as making it actionable under the civil code, meaning that anyone found guilty can face up to two years in jail or a fine of up to 17,000 US dollars, a large amount in this impoverished country. There are two relevant articles in the Criminal Code – Article 135, where information maliciously spread about a person is false, and Article 136 which covers insults that offend personal dignity.

Advocates for change say these provisions are routinely used to restrict freedom of speech.

They are also calling for the abolition of separate provisions that deal more seriously with libellous statements made against top officials. Under Article 137, a person convicted of libelling the Tajik president in the media can face five years in prison or a fine, while anyone who insults a government officials in a public manner could find themselves paying a fine of 34,000 dollars or spending two years in jail.

Media rights activists argue that everyone is equal before the law so officials do not need separate protections.

Anti-defamation legislation was toughened last year by expanding the definition of media outlets liable to prosecution to include internet publications.

“Journalists fear to write the truth because… articles in the criminal code are used to shut them up,” said Khurshed Atovulloev, chief editor of the newspaper Faraj

Atovulloev said that the current criminal legislation does not provide lack clear definitions for terms such as libel, slander and false information. That gives a lot of leeway for interpreting statements as defamatory.

In the last three years, there have been eight prosecutions for libel in Tajikistan, the majority relating to government officials.

In August, a criminal libel case was opened against Tursunali Aliev, a veteran journalist from northern Tajikistan, in relation to an article published in a magazine . Commenting on this, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan said legal experts viewed it as a case of “deliberate persecution” by local police “acting on behalf of certain senior officials” and designed to intimidate journalists.

Late the same month, Jumaboy Tolibov director of the Zarafshan Times newspaper got into trouble after a report on a traffic accident in which he alleged that jewellery and other valuables belonging to some of the 15 dead went missing during the police investigation. He was charged with insulting a policeman.

Mohira Sadulloeva, who chairs the Lawyers’ Board for Sogd region, in northern Tajikistan, says the continued existence of criminal legislation on libel tarnishes the country’s image in the international community.

She recalled that in 2005, the United Nations’ human rights commission urged the Tajik authorities to remove the criminal code article relating to libel of the president. In 2010, the government is scheduled to will have reminded that in 2010 Tajikistan is scheduled to report back to the UN commission on the actions it has taken in response to these recommendations.

“The fact that national legislation has not been changed to meet international standards over the last three years [since the 2005 recommendations] is very telling,” added Sadulloeva.

The place of public criticism in the media remains contentious in Tajikistan, in part as a legacy of the 1992-97 civil war. During the years of conflict, the government and the armed opposition used their respective media outlets to attack one another. Journalists began to be seen as fair game, and more than 70 were killed over this period.

The media’s role in the conflict has made some people cautious about relaxing the strictures on what can and cannot be said publicly.

Lawyer Mashhur Gaziev thinks it is no bad thing that disputes are resolved through the courts these days instead of by less civilised means, although he accepts that cases are often brought against journalists based on one person’s arbitrary interpretation of libel.

Abdumannon Kholikov, a member of the Tajik parliament, is among those who believe “some unprofessional journalists use information that is false and slanderous and thus injurious”.

As a judge sitting on the Supreme Court, Irina Kabilova agrees that the reason journalists fall foul of the law is lack of professional standards.

In addition, when too much attention is paid to the interests of journalists and not enough to the rights of plaintiffs in libel cases, the debate on the issue becomes “one-dimensional”.

For the moment, said Kabilova, it is too early to consider lifting the criminal law provisions on libel.

As the debate continues, Saymiddin Dustov, chief editor of the weekly Nigoh, comments that attempts to control the flow of media are in any case doomed to failure, as people in Tajikistan have so much access to external media – they watch television channels beamed from Moscow and look at Russian websites.

In that context, said Dustov, it is important for the Tajik authorities to realise that they need to nurture rather than curb the domestic media.

“We won’t get anywhere with the authorities on this [libel] issue until we make them see that they are our authorities and that they can’t operate without us,” he said.

Manija Safarova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.

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