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Tajikistan: Independent Newspapers Under Pressure

Opposition papers say government is interfering to stop them printing because of their critical political reporting.
By Zafar Abdullaev

The Tajik authorities’ intervention to obstruct publication of two outspoken newspapers is a sign that the government is getting tough on independent media, analysts say.


On December 29, tax officers stepped in to stop distribution of the new-year edition of the Nerui Sokhan (Power of the Word) newspaper. They accused its management of lying about its circulation figures in an attempt to evade taxes, and failing to provide information about where the title is printed.


Nerui Sokhan’s chief editor Mukhtor Bokizoda admits that he failed to fulfil the legal requirement to print the name of the newspaper’s publisher in every edition. “The printing press we work with, like many other private publishers, is pressured by the authorities and has asked not to be named in the banner,” he told IWPR.


But he said this technicality was not the reason why the authorities had stepped in. Instead, it was a tactic to force print media critical of the government to change their reporting, he said.


Nerui Sokhan switched to using private printers a few months ago after the state-run printing house Sharki Ozod refused to continue publishing it.


The latest incident came just a month another independent newspaper, Ruzi Nav (New Day), lost an entire edition when Sharki Ozod refused to print it. Then, on December 23, Ruzi Nav received a letter from the prosecutor general’s office accusing it of carrying articles that insulted President Imomali Rahmonov, inciting ethnic conflict and encouraging animosity between different regions of the country. The prosecutor warned that the title risked closure if it continued to print such pieces.


Ruzi Nav editor Rajabi Mirzo says the government-run printers offered flimsy reasons for not publishing his paper. They told him there was no contract for printing services – but he says, “we do have such a document and we have already made it public”.


“The real reason is quite different – the authorities are trying to shut down disobedient newspapers, using the printers as a tool,” he said.


Nerui Sokhan and Ruzi Nav, both Tajik-language weeklies, regularly carry interviews with opposition leaders and articles critical of the authorities.


Other independent journalists agree with the newspapers’ editors that these actions are politically motivated.


“It’s clear that these two newspapers have stepped over some line drawn by the authorities, and are being pressured,” said Marat Mamadshoev, editor of the Asia Plus publication. “I fear that Nerui Sokhan and Ruzi Nav will soon face huge problems, or else be closed down completely.”


The apparent pressure on critical voices comes after two years in which the government has been relatively tolerant of the media. The country’s first independent radio station began broadcasting in September, after waiting nearly four years for a license.


Tajik journalists still face serious problems. The state still owns much of the media, and the independent press ekes out a living on the margins, since few Tajiks can afford to spend much on newspapers. Self-censorship is common – many journalists remain wary of upsetting powerful figures, given the country’s recent history of civil war in which reporters were often killed.


They also have to keep within restrictive legal rules governing what they can say. Defamation of the president, for example, is punishable with five years in prison.


These restrictions became even tighter in November, when new legislation was passed to establish the principle of “information security” – a concept that implies the media will be made liable for anything deemed to harm national security interests.


The government maintains that its latest action is merely intended to enforce the tax laws. “Nerui Sokhan claims its print-run was blocked because of material that criticised the government and the president, yet there haven’t been any articles of this kind in recent issues,” an official in the presidential administration, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR. “The newspaper is evading taxes, and trying to turn a purely economic conflict into a political one.”


High taxes are a vexed issue for print media struggling to survive. Political scientist Tursun Kabirov says some titles under-report their circulation figures because otherwise the tax burden would overwhelm them. Opposition publications are in the weakest position since they are unable to attract significant advertising revenue.


In an open letter last May, over 20 newspaper chiefs and media organisations appealed to President Rahmonov to exempt them from the 20 per cent value-added tax for the next 10 years. So far there has been no response.


The combination of an unworkable tax system, the shortage of printing houses and the high cost of newsprint has created a situation where most of the press is operating outside the letter of the law. This plays into the hands of the authorities, who can at any moment apply economic leverage for political ends, said Kabirov.


Tajik journalists are now watching to see what happens to Ruzi Nav and Nerui Sokhan next – and there is pessimism about what the future holds for media freedom.


“When these brave newspapers appeared last year, it was a motive force for releasing all the others from subjugation,” said Mamadshoev. “Now they may start living in fear, and increase their self-censorship.”


Zafar Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Tajikistan


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