Tajikistan’s Turn of the Screw Against Media
Crackdown has turned journalism into a dangerous profession in the Central Asian nation.
The space for independent media in Tajikistan is shrinking ever more rapidly amidst a swathe of criminal cases against journalists in Tajikistan, fuelling self-censorship and fears for the sector’s future.
Most recently, on March 24, authorities confirmed a criminal case against Prague-based exiled journalist Rustami Joni for “organising the activities of an extremist organisation” under Part 4 of Article 307 of Tajikistan’s criminal code.
"Independent media have been devastated by a sustained campaign of repression."
Abdukhakim Shafiyev, an investigator from the ministry of internal affairs, told Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service Radio Ozodi that “Rustami Joni is on the wanted list” and that an official arrest request had been sent to the Interpol.
Joni, an ex-Radio Ozodi reporter, said he had never belonged to any extremist organisations and that the charges against him were related to his work. His wife Anora Sarkorova, a former BBC Russian service reporter, wrote on her Facebook page that family members had also been summoned to the police in Dushanbe in “an attempt to intimidate them”.
Joni’s case is just the latest in a series targeting media workers.
In June and July 2022, seven journalists and bloggers were sentenced to long prison terms. Five of them- Daleri Imomali, Abdullo Gurbati, Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, Mukhammad Sulton and Zavkibek Saidamini - were found guilty of collaborating with banned organisations under Article 307 of the criminal code. All rejected the allegations and said they were innocent.
In a letter, Pirmukhammadzoda wrote that he had been tortured and beaten while in detention. The prosecutor general’s office rejected this complaint and the journalist’s appeal in cassation against the verdict was unsuccessful.
Tajik journalist Mahpora Kiromova told IWPR that 2022 had been “a tough year”.
“We have felt the tension before, but it seems that last year [authorities] decided to eradicate all signs of freedom of speech. Article 307 of the criminal code was chosen as a tool to combat it; it simply turned free-thinking and pen-wielding people into extremists,” she said.
Five international human rights organisations have called on the Tajik authorities to stop “the campaign to silence journalists” and respect international obligations to protect freedom of expression and the media.
In a statement released on March 24, they asked the government to protect media workers from harassment and intimidation and stop using threats of prosecution as a tool to suppress critical reporting.
The move followed the arrest of journalist Khurshed Fozilov on March 6, after he was accused of publicly calling for a violent change of the constitutional order using the media or the internet as per Part 2 of Article 307 of the criminal code. He faces between five and eight years in prison.
Until his arrest, the 37-year-old reporter, who rejects the accusations, worked with independent local and foreign media focusing on issues affecting people in the Zerafshan valley, in the north of the country.
While his reporting was often critical of the local authorities, his lawyer Dilafruz Samadov stated that Fozilov “did not work against the government, all his work was carried out in compliance with the current legislation and the country's policy.”
Fozilov, who was active on social media, was previously named on state television as a contributor to Akhbor.com, a Prague-based independent outlet. In March 2020 the Supreme Court blocked access to the outlet, claiming it had links with “terrorist and extremist organisations”.
Fozilov's case is seen by many as a whitewash and rights groups, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, have called for his release to house arrest pending trial and for all legal proceedings to be conducted transparently. Cases against journalists are often handled behind closed doors.
A DANGEROUS JOB
Human rights’ groups have denounced Emomali Rakhmon, Tajikistan’s president since 1992, for creating a climate of terror that encourages self-censorship.
In its latest Freedom in the World report, Washington-based rights group Freedom House rated Tajikistan “not free”, with a score of eight out of 100 in its index.
“The authoritarian regime… severely restricts political rights and civil liberties. The political opposition and independent media have been devastated by a sustained campaign of repression,” read the report.
"They want to silence the voices of freethinkers in order to consolidate power."
Following protests in the eastern autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), eight journalists and bloggers were accused of ties to banned extremist organisations and sentenced to long prison terms in May 2022.
Journalist and social activist Ulfatkhonum Mamadshoeva and blogger Khushruz Dzhumaev were sentenced to 21 years and eight years in prison respectively, both under Article 307 of the criminal code. Four correspondents of Radio Ozodi and the RFE’s online TV Current Time were attacked in Khorog, GBAO’s administrative centre, on May 17, 2022 while they were interviewing Mamadshoeva.
On the same day, Asia Plus, an independent media outlet in Tajikistan, announced that it would no longer cover the events in Khorog, following a formal warning by the prosecutor general’s office that the outlet risked closure for its “one-sided” coverage.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), says the detention of journalists, including that of Fozilov, was directly related to their profession.
“These actions negatively affect the work of other journalists, increase self-censorship in society, and harm the fulfillment of journalism's mission as a pillar of a democratic society,” he told IWPR.
Fozilov's arrest has gone largely uncovered, Karshiboev noted, adding, “The silence of journalist organisations does not mean they agree with the authorities' decision to arrest and detain [him].
“One of the reasons is the self-censorship of civil society… a consequence of persecution and pressure on pluralism of views in society.”
Approached for comments, representatives of Tajikistan’s Media Council told IWPR that “since the details of Khurshed Fozilov's case are unknown, they will not make a statement”.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism and the SSSR weekly, where Fozilov worked, also did not report his arrest and their representatives did not comment on it.
Indeed, publicly reacting to the detention of colleagues can bear consequences. In June 2022, Tajik journalists' organisations and a number of outlets, including state media, expressed concern over the beating of Imomali and the attacks against the RFE journalists.
A few days later, however, the weeklies USSR, Tojikiston, Minbari Hulk, and Sadoi Mardum officially withdrew their statements. The editor-in-chief of the ruling People's Democratic Party's Minbari Halk was dismissed from his post; the same fate befell the editor-in-chief of the parliamentary publication Sadoi Mardum.
Authorities have denied that there are restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including pressure on journalists, but reporters say that the detentions in 2022 show that the boundaries of what is permissible have become narrower.
For Abdumalik Kadyrov, head of Tajikistan's Media Alliance organisation, this is linked to developments in Russia over the past year. Tajik authorities are committed to their alliance to Moscow, he noted, and ended up mirroring many of its actions.
“In this way they want to silence the voices of freethinkers in order to consolidate power," Kadyrov told IWPR.
While ignoring calls to end the pressure on journalists seems to leaves little hope for Tajik journalists, not everyone is resigned.
“It can't always be like this,” journalist Kiromova stated. “Journalism should not die so easily.”