Tajikistan's Beleaguered Media

In a presidential election year, independent media are under more pressure than ever.

Tajikistan's Beleaguered Media

In a presidential election year, independent media are under more pressure than ever.

Tuesday, 10 January, 2006
A leading private television station in Tajikistan says a recent court verdict against it is a deliberate move by the government to curb free expression ahead of this year’s presidential election.

On the face of it, the Somonion TV station has simply lost out in a complex action brought by the communications ministry to recover licensing fees – and that is the position taken by government officials.

But station owner Ikrom Mirzoev says the lawsuit is all about politics, a claim that looks all the more plausible given that most independent broadcast and print media in Tajikistan are facing similar problems. President Imomali Rahmonov, who has been in power since 1992, is expected to win yet another term in office in an election scheduled for November. Potential challengers have already been jailed or sidelined. But the authorities have been accused of harassing independent media ahead of past elections just to be on the safe side.

Following a ruling issued by the country’s top economic court in November after a ten-month trial, the communications ministry is entitled to seize studio equipment in lieu of a 5,875 somoni (1,850 US dollar), which he does not have. His property has been put under arrest, and the transmitter, as the most expensive item, will be confiscated.

Somonion, the only independent station broadcasting to the capital Dushanbe, stopped running before the court case began, because it failed to get its broadcasting license reviewed. Its five journalists and 17 technical staff have been without work since then.

Mirzoev insists he is not just being a poor loser, and that his company is being punished for giving fair access to opposition parties in the run-up to the February 2005 general election.

“Before the parliamentary election, my television studio was the only one which organised television debates which involved all political parties and in which - unlike the programmes on state-run television - criticism of the government was heard,” he said.

He says Somonion ran into financial difficulties only because the communications ministry imposed unfair conditions in order to extract more money.

“The [ministry] inspectorate is breaking every law in the land to gain financial benefit for itself,” he told IWPR. “Five years ago, the TV studio signed a contract with the inspectorate for a radio frequency, setting out a complete payment schedule. However, without warning us, the inspectorate took it upon itself to introduce an additional, and very high, payment for the frequency. A year later we were landed with a bill which was almost 80 per cent higher. I was unable to pay, as in the five years that the TV station has existed, it has actually operated for just 14 months.

“Now we aren’t working anyway, as the licensing commission of the State Committee for Television and Radio has not extended our broadcasting license.”

The head of the communications ministry inspectorate, Lyubov Kovalevskaya, rejects Mirzoev’s claim that the authorities were unhappy with his station’s political content and said the fees charged by her agency were fair.

“We pursue a clear and transparent economic policy. The price list is based on our running costs - we are currently undergoing re-equipment and spending a lot of funds,” she said. “The inspectorate allocates a TV channel and deals with the technical and economic matters - programme content does not interest us.”

Mirzoev has applied to the national licensing commission for an extension four times in the last two years, without success. The commission says it suspended Somonion’s license because it needed to adjust its own regulations to match a new set of licensing legislation. In addition, commission members told IWPR there was a problem with Somonion’s company documents.

Mirzoev has asked the Association of Independent Electronic Media, which brings together 16 TV and radio broadcasters, to intervene on his behalf. The association’s executive director, Khosiyat Kast, was cautious about ascribing a political motive to the the case, saying the sum of money now being demanded from Somonion was reasonable.

“The bill presented by the inspectorate is in line with the price list set by the communications ministry, although there are some issues with it,” she said. “Our association… is holding talks with inspectorate managers, and opportunities for a positive resolution of the dispute are already in sight.”

Somonion is not the only private TV station facing closure following a run-in with the communications ministry. Three others, all based in the north of Tajikistan, have already gone bankrupt.

A court has ordered the Ustrushan station based in Istravshan to pay more than 4,000 dollars to the communications ministry. “The future of the television studio is now in doubt as we are not capable of paying this money,” said the station’s director Bahrom Yusupov.

Stations in Isfara and Penjikent are in the same position. In the latter town, Simo TV director Abdumain Juraev – facing a legal claim for 3,700 dollars - said, “We run for just two or four hours a day, and prior to this broadcasting was halted for a whole year, but we are still being asked for full payment for using the frequency over this period. When can we get the money if we have almost no income?

“In the end, this will lead to the closing down of alternative TV in the country.”

Apart from the payment demands, private broadcasters are finding that their applications for new or renewed broadcasting licenses are being held up because the commission has effectively ground to a halt because of the new legislation.

“I’ve studied this law, and nowhere can I find instructions for the licensing commission to stop work, especially for such a lengthy period,” said Kast.

Orif Azimov, a lawyer with the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, NANSMIT, a different group from Kast’s association, says, “According to the law, licenses should be issued within one month, but none has been issued to anyone for a long time.”

Some industry insiders fear that license applications will not be dealt with until the November election is out of the way.

The licensing commission failed to respond to IWPR’s request for information on current policy.

In September, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s representative on media freedom, wrote to the Tajik foreign ministry expressing concern at the failure to grant licenses to broadcaster.

Haraszti also highlighted the problems facing Tajikistan’s independent newspapers, most of which have been closed down.

The Nerui Sukhan paper was ordered to stop publishing in January 2005, ostensibly for a technical breach of the law. Concern that the closure, just weeks before the election, was due to official anger at critical reporting of the government, were heightened when chief editor Mukhtor Bokizoda was convicted because his printing house was found to have stolen electricity from the state. His deputy Vahob Odinaev and reporter Nuriddin Aminov were both jailed on libel charges – a criminal offence in Tajikistan – after publishing allegations of corruption at the Tajik State University.

Another independent, Ruzi Nav, once noted for its fearless reporting on high-level corruption, has not come out for over a year. There has been no formal ruling that it should close, but no printing house in the country will touch it, and a short-lived attempt to print it in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan foundered in November 2004 when the entire print-run was confiscated at Dushanbe airport.

“The present situation cannot be coincidental,” said political analyst and journalist Marat Mamadshoev. “There’s undoubtedly major pressure being exerted on the media at the moment. It is outrageous and incomprehensible.”

NANSMIT chairman Nuriddin Karshiboev says that the increased frequency with which lawsuits are being brought against journalists working on independent papers does not in itself prove that the authorities are stepping up the pressure ahead of the presidential election. However, he added, “The authorities always seek to control the media before important political events.”

While independent print and broadcast media face crippling legal and financial challenges, their counterparts in the state-run sector are getting a boost.

According to the chairman of the State Committee for Television and Radio, Asadullo Rahmonov, state TV and radio got one million dollars in government money to upgrade their technology last year. This year, they will get a 25 per cent increase in funding.

The authorities have also started up a new TV channel called Safina and taken over a private station, Poitakht.

Officially, the Tajik government continues to pledge its support to the principle of media freedom. However, that commitment is tempered by political considerations.

As the deputy head of the State Committee for Television and Radio, Abdurahmon Abdumanonov told the Asia Plus newspaper recently, “We are far from indifferent to the content of our country’s information space, and we don’t it to be filled with foreign material and voices.”
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