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

Tajikistan's Open-and-Shut Newspaper

One of the few independent papers, Nerui Sukhan, was back in business - briefly. Now it has been shut down again.
By Rustam Nazarov

A leading independent newspaper in Tajikistan, Nerui Sukhan, has been closed down again, after briefly being allowed to resume publishing for the first time in almost five months.

When Nerui Sukhan, whose title means "the power of words", was given permission to start printing again, and even managed to publish and sell one edition on July 4, some analysts saw it as attempt by the government to suggest the heightened pressure on independent media was being relaxed.

If that was the intention, it backfired since on July 14 – just as the United States ambassador to the OSCE, Stephen Minikes was welcoming the reopening of Nerui Sukhan as "a positive step forward" which "we hope signals a new commitment to freedom of the media" – the Tajik tax authorities stepped in and closed it down, preventing that day's edition being published.

The Tajik-language paper closed in January after tax authorities shut down the small publishing house which printed it.

Mukhtor Bokizoda, chief editor of Nerui Sukhan, was accused of tax evasion, but the case was later dropped. He says the real reason was that “someone disliked an article in the most recent issue, and this person, using the name of the government as cover, ensured that our printing press and weekly newspaper was sealed”.

Since the closure came just a month before Tajikistan's parliamentary election, many observers believed it was part of a long-running but escalating clampdown on independent voices, designed to reduce the opposition's chances of being heard.

It wasn’t just Nerui Sukhan that suffered. The National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan recorded more than 300 reports of violations of the rights of journalists and the media in 2004.

The Jiyonhon printing house used by another independent paper, Ruzi Nav, was closed last August. When the newspaper, the country’s largest with a circulation of 15,000, went to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to print, the edition was confiscated on arrival Dushanbe airport. It has not been published since and a criminal case has been opened against the editor Rajabi Mirzo on charges of insulting the honour and dignity of Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov.

“Undoubtedly, several months before the elections and afterwards too, the authorities tried to restrict the activity of independent media as much as possible,” independent political analyst Tursun Kabirov told IWPR.

“This was expressed in the secret ban on handling opposition newspapers at printing presses, seizures of their property, the opening of criminal cases, and also beatings of journalists. As a result, the opposition parties were completely deprived of support from the media in the election, so they were unable to achieve a significant result.”

After television, newspapers are the main source of information in Tajikistan. Though official circulation figures are low, research has shown that one newspaper is usually read by three or four people.

When the clampdown failed to ease up in the months following the February 27 election, commentators in Tajikistan suggested the government was alarmed by the unrest and subsequent revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and then the violence in Uzbekistan in May.

Nerui Sukhan was allowed to reopened in time for its first edition in July, but it was already in a weaker position as many of its best journalists had left and circulation had fallen to 2,000-3,000 issues compared with a peak of 4,000-8,000 before, although it did manage 4,000 for that first new edition.

Kabirov believes that granting the paper renewed permission to publish was part of a rethink in which the authorities decided to mount a PR campaign to coopt the media.

“Recently, there has been an attempt by the authorities to win over independent media,” says Kabirov. “For example, the activity of the independent TV station Guli Bodom has started again, after being suspended at the beginning of April this year.”

President Rahmonov has also ordered all ministries and government to hold quarterly press conferences, and has made himself more available to the media.

“All this shows that Rahmonov has already started to prepare for the upcoming [2006] presidential election and wants to secure the support of independent media,” said Kabirov.

In the light of this analysis, it is hard to see why the authorities decided a to close Nerui Sukhan a second time, thereby generating more adverse publicity than if they had never allowed it to resume publishing.

The US embassy in Dushanbe had to follow Ambassador Minikes's positive remarks with a statement saying it was "discouraged at this apparent reversal in attitude towards freedom of the media".

Whatever the reasons behind the decision, Kabirov does not foresee a real change for the better in the government's attitude to free speech.

“The president will at best allow a few loyal media bodies to register,” he said. “Otherwise, the persecution of troublesome journalists… will continue. A series of absorptions and mergers of independent media is also to be expected, especially regional television and radio station and media organisations controlled by the president’s circle.”

Despite the general air of gloom, there are still journalists trying to stand up for their rights.

A group of young journalists working at Tajikistan’s main media outlets, including Asia-Plus and Ruzi Nav, recently formed the Media Alliance Tajikistan organisation which aims to protect the interests and safety of all reporters and to establish dialogue with the authorities.

Many journalists from the independent sector have already joined up, together with five from pro-government media.

Rustam Nazarov is an IWPR correspondent in Dushanbe.

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