Tajikistan Tightens Grip on Media

The government’s failure to ease up on independent media in the wake of recent elections suggest it may be a more permanent trend.

Tajikistan Tightens Grip on Media

The government’s failure to ease up on independent media in the wake of recent elections suggest it may be a more permanent trend.

Tajikistan appears to be stepping up its control of the media, instead of relaxing its hold after the recent parliamentary election as expected.

Analysts say the current wave of repression began in autumn 2004, when the authorities confiscated an entire edition of the independent newspaper Ruzi Nav, which was printed in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and closed down the small publishing house used by the Nerui Sukhan paper. Criminal cases were also opened against the editors of these newspapers.

At the time, these moves were linked to the republic’s February 27 parliamentary elections – but they have not been relaxed since, and new measures have been introduced that affect non-government organisations, NGOs.

Financial checks are now being carried out on the bulk of foreign NGOs organisations operating within the republic. And the Tajik interior ministry now requires foreign embassies and international organisations to inform it of the date and topic of any meetings with local NGOs, political parties and journalists, claiming that “their activity threatens the information security of the country and does not match the requirements of the development strategy for Tajik society".

These moves have alarmed journalists and civil society activists alike.

"We thought that restrictions of freedom of speech before elections in a post-conflict country such as Tajikistan were an unpleasant necessity," political scientist Tursun Kabirov told IWPR.

"Representatives close to the presidential administration unofficially promised that after the elections, opposition media would resume work and that new media outlets would be registered, but this did not happen."

Speaking before the latest violence in Uzbekistan, Kabirov said the Tajik authorities had failed to release their grip because they were unnerved by the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which prompted them to take measures to prevent a similar uprising. He claims the independent media was one of the first targets of what he calls this “anti-revolutionary purge”.

Observers say that a secret ban on registering media - TV, radio, newspaper and internet alike - was introduced at this time, and continues to this day.

Journalists who want to open their own media outlet claim that justice ministry officials told them openly to not bother, as their requests would be refused in line with an order “from the top”.

One potential newspaper founder, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that he even tried to get around this difficulty by offering money to an official.

"It is no secret that many issues in Tajikistan are settled with a bribe," he said. “But to my surprise, the justice ministry official refused to accept it, saying no amount of money would help: they are strictly forbidden to carry out any media registration."

But the authorities flatly deny that such a policy exists.

When Zaraf Abdullaev, the head of Tajikistan’s first internet news agency Avesta, ran into difficulties while attempting to set up a new independent FM radio station, he was told that there was no ban on new registrations.

"Karomatullo Mirzoev, head of the presidential administration’s information and media department, said he hadn’t heard anything about this, and that no one had given such instructions," said Abdullaev. "He advised me to go back to the justice ministry.”

Abdullaev is alarmed at the signs of backsliding on freedom of expression, "This state of affairs greatly concerns me. The authorities are making grave encroachments on our constitutional rights, and no revolution in neighbouring countries can serve to justify this.

“Over the past few years, we have made significant achievements in the area of freedom of speech, and this cannot be erased in a single moment. Especially as practice shows that the use of force does not provide stability, and problems can only be solved through dialogue."

It is believed that around 30 applications for registration have been left hanging in the air, including that of the Imruz newspaper headed by journalist Marat Mamadshoev.

Mamadshoev told IWPR that he has made three attempts to register his new venture, but has been rebuffed each time due to “errors” in his application. He believes this is little more than an excuse, and thinks the real obstacle is his membership of the Social Democratic Party, which has refused to acknowledge the results of the February election.

Civil society activists have also voiced concern over the closure in April 2005 of two private television stations, Guli Bodom in Kanibadam and Somonian in Dushanbe. The former was accused of breaking a law with its election coverage, and the latter’s license had apparently expired.

Analysts believe the stations were taken off the air because they had given broadcast time to speeches by independent and opposition candidates. Somonian had also organised a discussion club involving all the country’s political parties as part of a project by the local branch of the Internews media support organisation.

The closure of Somonian means that the capital Dushanbe has no private TV channel, and those that still exist in the regions are small and poorly-equipped. In any case, the only channels that can be received across much of the republic are those of state TV and Russian Television and Radio.

Analysts note that the authorities have yet to pass a statute on radio and television broadcasting, leading to a long delay in issuing and reissuing licenses.

The draft statute came in for heavy criticism at a round-table event in April of this year, in which representatives of the government’s licensing commission and communications inspection office met with journalists and media professionals.

One participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “In the form that the draft was presented, we’d have to work under state censorship that was stronger than it was in the Soviet era.

"The authors of the document want to censor the internet and catch independent electronic media in a 'censorship net', without touching the state channels."

The apparent clampdown on independent media has also been directed against NGOs, particularly those funded by the United States to develop freedom of speech in the former Soviet republic.

The head of the United States National Democratic Institute, which supports the development of political parties and debate, was refused an entry visa, and the organisation’s local office had difficulty in becoming registered. Internews is also said to be facing pressure from the authorities.

Rustam Nazarov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan

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