Attacks on the Press 1999: Tajikistan

Attacks on the press, while still rife, have slowed down since the end in 1997 of Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, during which 29 journalists were murdered in the line of duty. But the government has found other means to keep a tight lid on the press.

Throughout the year, the government of President Imomali Rakhmonov subjected journalists to harassment, intimidation, and censorship. Although a six-year ban on parties of the mainly Islamic United Tajik Opposition (UTO) and their media was finally lifted in August 1999, the government’s fear of political challenge remained evident, especially in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election.

Prior to the election, only the private weekly Junbish reported on the views and activities of the UTO and other opposition parties. By mid-October, Junbish had been forced to cease publication because of harassment and threats by the authorities and because the state printing press refused to continue printing the paper.

By election time, only one private newspaper in the capital, Dushanbe, was covering political events: the overtly pro-government, Russian-language weekly Biznes i Politika. No independent newspapers were in print, and no independent radio stations were licensed to operate. Although at least a dozen independent television stations were broadcasting in the country (including several Russian stations), they too were hampered by bureaucratic harassment.

Throughout the campaign season, opposition candidates were denied equal access to state media. Election officials refused to register four out of the six presidential candidates. Although a fifth candidate, Davlat Usmon of the Islamic Renaissance Party, was registered at the last moment, he withdrew in protest at what he saw as the government’s token efforts to hold a fair election. President Rakhmonov’s ensuing 97 percent victory was widely condemned as farcical.

Because of a prevailing lack of law and order and the omnipotence of mafia bosses who control virtually every aspect of the economy, especially the rampant drug trade, journalists face grave risks in carrying out their professional duties. As a result, self-censorship is widespread.

These risks were illustrated by the July 5 assassination of Dzumakhon Khotami, head of the Interior Ministry’s press center. An unidentified gunman shot Khotami five times at point-blank range near his home in Dushanbe. Sources in Dushanbe said that he was murdered because of his investigative reports, aired weekly on national television, in which he delved into drug trafficking, corruption, and organized crime.

A group of Tajik journalists who visited CPJ in July said that Khotami was highly respected for his professionalism and courage. There was debate, however, on whether Khotami could legitimately be described as a journalist, in view of his government position.

With the crime lords firmly entrenched, and with Rakhmonov’s ruling People’s Democratic Party expected to win parliamentary elections in February 2000, the outlook for press freedom in Tajikistan remains bleak for the foreseeable future.