Worrying Attack on Leading Tajik Editor

Few believe Rajabi Mirzo was the victim of a random mugging, given the critical stance of his newspaper.

Worrying Attack on Leading Tajik Editor

Few believe Rajabi Mirzo was the victim of a random mugging, given the critical stance of his newspaper.

An attack on the chief editor of one of Tajikistan’s leading independent newspapers has rung alarm bells among those concerned about the beleaguered position of critical media voices.

Rajabi Mirzo, the founder and editor of Ruzi Nav (New Day), was beaten up near his home late on July 29. As his deputy editor Fahriddin Kholbek told journalists, Mirzo was seeing off guests, and as he returned home, a stranger called out to him.

“The assailant was a muscular man wearing body armour, who stopped him and asked him the time,” said Kholbek. “Then he gave Mirzo a heavy blow to the head, presumably with a knuckleduster. Mirzo fell to the ground and was kicked several times.”

Eyewitnesses said the man then got into a waiting car, which then drove off. They added that he had been hanging around the area for several hours.

Hours after the attack, the newspaper published a statement by Mirzo, in which he said, “So I have been attacked a second time. The first time was at the end of January this year, when three colleagues and I were beaten up for no reason in Khujand. We didn’t want to publicise that incident, so as not to make people disillusioned with the country’s politics.”

In his statement, which he addressed to Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov, the United Nations, the OSCE and other organisations, Mirzo said that “he has a good idea about who ordered the attack, but he does not want to disclose the name yet”.

Mirzo urged the authorities to provide him with the necessary protection or allow him to carry a weapon for self-defence.

The local office of the OSCE responded rapidly, saying “freedom and pluralism of the media… [form] the foundation of any democratic society, and the OSCE centre expresses grave concern and alarm at this incident”.

The two attacks on Mirzo are the first assaults on independent journalists for five years. The last case was the murder of journalist and opposition politician Otakhon Latifi, shot dead in September 1998 shortly after returning from years of emigration.

“This is a purely political attack,” said Mirzo. “There has been pressure put on Ruzi Nav in other ways as well.”

Hinting that the attack might have been ordered by someone working for the government, he challenged the authorities to ban his newspaper, saying that his team would then leave Tajikistan.

Some analysts believe he is right. “Ruzi Nav is not afraid of criticising the powers that be, and this reaches all the way from local authorities up to the president are affected by this,” Tursun Kabirov, an independent political scientist, said in an interview with IWPR.

Kabirov said the paper has been more critical of the government than any other, and has questioned the legitimacy of how President Rahmonov came to power and describing the “family” of relatives and political associates who surround him.

“Given the critical and topical articles that this newspaper [Ruzi Navi] published, this incident was only to be expected, and that’s very sad,” said Rahmon Ulmasov, the chief editor of another independent newspaper, Business and Politics.

In recent months, both Ruzi Nav and the other main opposition-leaning newspaper, Nerui Sokhan, have received verbal warnings from the authorities for publishing critical material deemed insulting to officials. At the beginning of 2004, the prosecution service warned both papers that they could face criminal charges if they did not mend their ways.

Both Ruzi Nav and Nerui Sokhan had previously run into trouble with the country’s only major publishing house, the state-run Sharki Ozod, which stopped printing them after disputes ostensibly about contractual matters, although many believed this was a front for political motives. They are currently published by a small private printing house, which takes at least 24 hours to complete each edition because it lacks basic equipment.

The final straw for the authorities was, say some media analysts, the help and support that Mirzo gave leading opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev when the latter returned to Tajikistan for the first time in a decade. Atavulloev, whose opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz is an émigré publication appearing in Russia, left after a few days saying he had received a warning that his life was in danger.

Shavkat Saidov, spokesman for the mayor of Dushanbe, said the government did not have a hand in the attack on Mirzo. “I see no signs that government agencies were involved, because if the newspaper’s activity were contravening the law, it would [simply] be closed down.”

Saidov suggested that some “third force” could be at work, making trouble between the government and its critics so as to damage Tajikistan’s reputation.

While five opposition parties issued a statement condemning the assault on the editor, one of their leaders - Muhiddin Kabiri, first deputy chairman of the Islamic Revival Party – also dismissed the idea that Rahmonov’s administration was involved.

“They [national leaders] need to maintain stability and to retain the international image that they have built up with difficulty in recent years,” he said. Kabiri, too, believes that some influential faction that is outside the decision-making process of government was responsible for the attack on Mirzo.

At the same time, Kabiri stressed the significance of the incident, “I believe that this attack is a threat to democracy in the country. A newspaper editor has been brutally beaten for the first time since the [1992-97] civil war, and this is a threat not just to journalists, but to the whole of civil society – people who hold independent views.”

Kabiri said the attack rang alarm bells since it comes as Tajikistan begins gearing up for next year’s parliamentary election.

In his statement, Mirzo made the same point, saying, “We believe that on the eve of important political events in Tajikistan, the government is not interested in actions such as closing down an independent newspaper, and that it will make all possible efforts not to harm the country’s image – one that it has won thanks to the independent newspapers.”

Urging the authorities to identify and punish the culprits, Mizo said, “Our society wants to believe that the Tajikistan government does want to build a free and democratic nation, but that some unknown force is hindering this.”

By way of response, the police have begun a criminal investigation which the first deputy interior minister is supervising personally.

Zafar Abdullaev is director of the Avesta news agency in Dushanbe.

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