Beginning his 16th year as head of state, President Emomali Rahmonov promoted policies to foster “national identity.” He abolished Russified endings from Tajik surnames—and started by cutting the suffix “ov” from his own surname and decreeing that he be called President Rahmon. The newly renamed president went on to prohibit students from driving cars to school and to admonish the public for what he called lavish spending on weddings and funerals. In his annual address to parliament, Rahmon called for the development of a new press policy in which “Tajik mass media will be expected to raise patriotism with the public.”
The president’s call for a “patriotic” press did not immediately lead to new legislation, but the country’s poor overall press situation has drawn international and domestic criticism. The National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT), a press freedom group based in the capital, Dushanbe, said government officials have consistently denied independent and opposition reporters access to public information and failed to notify reporters of official press conferences—despite a 2005 presidential decree that obliges authorities to hold quarterly press conferences and grant journalists access. But the greatest indicator of press conditions is the dearth of independent news sources. No daily newspapers circulate in the country, independent weeklies are suppressed, and foreign broadcasters are barred from the airwaves. In a country where the average monthly salary is about US$45, few have access to the Internet or satellite television. Broadcast television, the primary source of news, is dominated by three national state-run stations: Tajik, Soghd, and Khatlon.
Authorities have long relied on politicized investigations and regulatory actions to obstruct the independent media. The newspapers Ruzi Nav, Nerui Sukhan, and Odamu Olan; the television stations Somonien and Guli Bodom; and BBC radio all saw their licenses pulled for alleged administrative violations between 2004 and 2006. (Somonien TV regained its license in 2007.)
The government, which had already blocked domestic access to critical Internet news sites, moved in 2007 to impose greater criminal liability against them as well. Parliament, dominated by the pro-presidential People’s Democratic Party, approved amendments to the criminal code that added Internet-based publications to the mass media that can be charged with criminal defamation. CPJ and others called on Rahmon to veto the amendments, which effectively criminalize critical reporting and commentary on popular news Web sites such as Ferghana and Centrasia and opposition sites such as Charogiruz and Tajikistan Times. Existing penalties include a fine of 20,000 somoni (US$5,800)—hundreds of times a citizen’s normal monthly income—and two years in prison. Rahmon signed the measure into law on October 20.
The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—a pan-European human rights monitoring group—expressed its concern about the expansion of criminal defamation and the poor overall press situation. Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on media freedom, called on the Tajik government to “bring its legislation in line with its OSCE commitments by revoking recent criminal code amendments that restrict freedom of speech. Whether published on the Internet or in any other media, only explicit incitement to violence or discrimination should be criminalized; the rest of the verbal offenses should belong to civil courts.”
Already, the fear of criminal persecution leads Tajik reporters to practice widespread self-censorship, NANSMIT reported. One high-profile case, pending in late year, was closely watched by journalists. In July, popular Tajik singer Raikhona Rakhimova filed a defamation complaint against Editor-in-Chief Saida Kurbonova and reporters Mukhaiye Nozimova and Farangis Nabiyeva of the newspaper Ovoza over a story that purported to describe details of the singer’s personal life.
One positive development came in September, when Tajik authorities brought to justice Aslan Usmonov, an accomplice in the 1995 killing of prominent Tajik journalist Muhiddin Olimpur. The Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced Usmonov to 15 years in prison in a maximum-security penal colony on September 28, Ferghana reported. Olimpur, head of the BBC’s Persian Service in Tajikistan, was found dead near the University of Tajikistan in Dushanbe with a gunshot wound to the head. He was among 16 journalists killed during the Tajik civil war, which lasted from 1992 to 1997. According to CPJ research, two other accomplices in the Olimpur murder were convicted in 2003; the suspected mastermind, a field commander with the United Tajik Opposition, died during the war.
Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, especially those receiving foreign funding, encountered new restrictions in 2007. A vaguely worded measure approved by parliament and enacted in February increased state control over the NGO sector, introducing a number of procedural and licensing hurdles that appear designed to obstruct the work of NGOs, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.