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Tajikistan: Media Pressure Intensifies

Non-government media subjected to closures and threats in run-up to 2005 elections.
By Valentina Kasymbekova

Independent and opposition Tajik journalists and newspapers are struggling to cope with growing pressure being piled on them by the authorities and pro-government organisations.

A number of journalists have been physically attacked or intimidated and opposition Tajik-language publications have shut in recent months, as the government of President Imomali Rahmonov prepares for parliamentary elections in February 2005.

Representatives of some western governments have said they were concerned about the closures, while international advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, pointed to the “serious worsening” of press freedom in Tajikistan.

The organisation’s statement came after tax police closed and sealed private printer Jiyonhon in late July. The printer’s seven newspapers have not gone to press since then, as other printing houses in the capital Dushanbe refused to provide their services.

Individual journalists have also felt the sting; Rajab Mirzo editor of opposition Ruzi Nav, or New Day, was badly beaten at a bus stop in an apparent attempt to silence him.

The government’s crackdown means that Tajik-speakers will not have access to newspapers and magazines that do not toe the official line. The closures and intimidation have also frightened the remaining news media, casting a pall over the entire sector, says Marat Mamadshoev, an editor at international non-profit organisation Internews.

“As parliamentary elections approach, the Tajik authorities’ supply of liberalism has run out, and they have launched a large-scale campaign to pacify the media,” he said.

The government and its supporters say journalists have themselves to blame, and accuse some of abusing press freedoms, stirring up ethnic tensions and criticising Rakhmonov and his government groundlessly.

“We have a low level of political culture, and journalists frequently abuse people’s honour and dignity,” said Shodi Sabdolov, a parliamentary deputy and head of the Tajikistan Communist Party.

The media also has to contend with secretive regulations governing the media passed in May of this year. Journalists can be charged for violating these rules, although their details are not public.

Every month, there are at least 40 cases of journalists’ rights being abused, including beatings and telephone threats, according to the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan. These numbers are probably much higher, say local analysts.

Constant threats are made against the correspondent for Asia-Plus in Kulyab, a city in south-western Tajikistan, IWPR contributor Turko Dikaev, and Mukhiddin Idizoda, the editor of Tajikistan Democratic Party’s newspaper, Adolat.

Another journalist who appears to have been singled out for her coverage of the government is Mavlyuda Sultonzoda, who began to receive threats in December.

In “Who is this Rakhmonov?” which appeared in Nerui Sukhan in July, Sultonzoda wrote that while 90 per cent of the country lives in abject poverty, President Rakhmonov’s inner circle lives in grand palaces, drives expensive cars and enjoys medical treatment abroad.

In the article, she asked why the president’s salary was not public information, as it is in democratic societies.

The pro-government media responded by heaping criticism on Sultonzoda, who has been suffering from cancer for several years.

The editor of parliamentary newspaper Sadoi Mardum, Bobojon Abduvokhidov, published an article saying that Sultonzoda was a “gossip-monger” and “trouble-maker in a skirt”.

“The head of state is not obliged to account for himself not only in family matters, but in general,” he wrote.

“The president has the right to immunity,” Abduvokhidov added.

Another article delved into Sultonzoda’s personal life, saying she was married for a second time, and that she used to work in a kitchen, where she was punished for absence from work.

Criticism of Sultonzoda has not been confined to the printed page. She says she has received over a dozen anonymous calls to her home, threatening her and her three children.

Sultonzoda’s husband, a former aide to Deputy Prime Minister Haji Akbar Turajonzoda, has been dismissed, allegedly because of her work.

But journalists have not spoken publicly in support of Sultonzoda and others, as happens in Kazakstan or Kyrgyzstan.

Sultonzoda, who teaches Russian to Iranians to make ends meet and to pay for her cancer treatment, said she understood her colleagues.

“For them it is fraught with consequences, their newspapers may be closed down or they may be persecuted like me,” Sultonzoda said in an interview with IWPR.

Pointing to her head, Sultonzoda vowed to fight on, “My head is shaven under this headscarf, I don’t have much time to live, and the truth must be told.”

Valentina Kasymbekova and Aziza Sharipova are independent journalists in Tajikistan.

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