Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: Free Press in Financial Crisis

Upcoming curbs on advertising could finish off many independent papers.
By Zafar Abdullaev

A new law that will restrict advertising revenues of newspapers, which are already reeling from spiralling costs and plummeting circulation, could spell doom for Tajikistan's struggling independent media, analysts say.

The legislation was approved in January by the lower chamber of parliament and will be presented for ratification to the upper house in roughly five weeks' time. It seeks to curb advertising in the print media, at a time when papers are relying on it to offset a startling rise in production costs.

Rising paper and typesetting rates, coupled with the population's low purchasing power, have already dented circulation and led to calls for government and international agencies to safeguard the media's financial independence. If this does not happen, many fear that the current recession could be the last one for the country's fragile free press.

International groups such as the OSCE and UN regard Tajikistan's independent papers as vital indicators of the health of democracy in the country.

President Imomali Rakhmonov acknowledged as much when an independent journalist was recently included in delegations that met NATO representatives from France and the US. Last month, Rakhmonov also gave the go-ahead for the registration of a new centrist alliance, the Social Democratic party, which has long planned to launch a mainstream paper.

In the current economic climate, however, as established Tajik titles fend off bankruptcy, new ones have little chance of making an impact.

Last month, a state-owned print and production complex, Sharki Ozod, brought in a 40 per cent increase in its rates. Roughly 80 per cent of the country's publications are produced at the plant.

Media owners have attacked the new policy, according to which a paper with a print-run of 1,000 is charged the same for typesetting as one with a circulation ten times larger. As a result, new titles striving to attract readers have been hit hardest.

Press bosses have tried to get Sharki Ozod's director, Manzurkhon Dadakhanov, to adopt a more flexible pricing structure, but to no avail. Dadakhanov insists that his enterprise worked at a loss during 2002, trying to keep a lid on its charges. The new price, he said, reflects inflation and the need to upgrade or maintain the printing house's technology.

Ultimately, the print media are not in a position to argue with Dadakhanov. The editor of a leading paper, who preferred not to be named, told IWPR, "This is the only plant in the country that can print A3 or A2 format newspapers in large numbers. It is nothing less than a monopoly."

Plans to establish an alternative independent printing facility appear to be deadlocked as its backers, the OSCE, the Aga Khan Foundation and the Swiss Office for Cooperation, look for viable partners.

According to independent media analyst, Tursun Kabirov, the price hike at Sharki Ozod is only the tip of the iceberg, "In medical terms, you could say that the independent press has been chronically ill. The illness is that of unprofitability."

Alisher Shaparov, commercial director of the media holding company Asia-Plus, believes the long-term problems with profitability are the result of the high cost of importing paper from Russia. He thinks the government should offer independent media outlets partial tax exemption as they find their feet over the next few years.

"The cost of paper delivered from Russia makes up 30 per cent of the price of the newspaper," said Shaparov. "If you calculate all the different taxes that we pay, this sum takes up 40 per cent of our income."

Tajik papers have been left with two alternatives - either increase their cover charges or bolster revenues from advertising.

Titles that have raised their prices have invariably registered a sizeable drop in circulation.

According to Akbar Sattorov, who manages five papers in his media holding company, Charkhi Gardun, readers are finding cheaper ways of getting their information. These include "borrowing" an edition from a vendor for two to three hours and paying a fraction of the price, or clubbing together with friends and neighbours to buy one.

Papers that have tried to keep prices down by increasing advertising have lost readers who feel this has undermined their credibility.

Kabirov speaks of a vicious circle, where editors forced to increase advertising end up losing circulation and then charge both advertisers and readers more to cover their higher production costs.

A combination of both factors has led to plunging circulations. Sattorov told IWPR that "if, in 1994-95, the total weekly circulation of national newspapers was 600,000 to 700,000, today it does not exceed 150,000 to 200,000".

In Gorny Badakhshan and Rasht in eastern Tajikistan, national titles have almost completely vanished.

Under the new law, which is likely to come into effect later this year, advertising can make up no more than 30 per cent of a paper, in an apparent bid to preserve the tone and integrity of the press.

Many media owners agree that legislation is needed to counter the worst excesses of advertising, but insist that the proposed law would harshly penalise their titles by unfairly starving them of revenue.

Marat Mamadshoev, an editor with the Asia Plus paper, believes the government should not interfere as the media regulates itself best.

"If a newspaper begins to misuse advertising, then it will lose its readers very quickly and accordingly, its advertisers," he told IWPR. " In any case, it is better that Tajik society has a media with too many advertisements than no free media whatsoever."

According to Kabirov, a combination of external aid and government measures are needed to protect the economic base of the independent press, warning that without this the entire process of democratisation in Tajikistan is at risk.

He fears the free press could go the way of Business and Politics, a paper once celebrated as Tajikistan's first upmarket independent periodical. After its circulation halved in 2002, it remerged in early February, adopting a pro-government line. Financial aid from state bodies is believed to be keeping it afloat.

Zafar Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Tajikistan