Attacks on the Press 2001: Tajikistan

Although Tajikistan’s civil war ended in 1997, its devastating effects endure. Journalists work in dire, impoverished conditions, exacerbated by the stifling restrictions imposed under President Imomali Rakhmonov. Investigative reporting is rare, especially on sensitive issues such as trafficking in weapons and drugs, border tensions, and power struggles among the political and military elite.

Tajikistan’s sole publishing house is controlled by the state, which freely blocks publication of critical stories. Journalists who persist in speaking their minds are threatened with police intimidation, tax harassment, and legal challenges under insult laws that carry prison sentences of up to two years.

On June 14, according to local and international sources, officials from the State Security Ministry questioned reporter Khrushed Atovulloyev of the newspaper Dzhavononi Tojikiston about a June 8 article that described abysmal living conditions endured by university students and bribe-taking by teaching staff. Atovulloyev was released with a warning to stop covering such topics.

A reporter for Badakhshon in the Gorno-Badakhshansky region was fired on June 10 after he wrote an article criticizing local officials. Saidnazar Aliyev was apparently dismissed after the editor received phone calls from local authorities complaining about the story.

On July 5, Russian officials in Moscow arrested Dododjon Atovullo, the exiled publisher and editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz (Daylight). Atovullo, who was traveling through Moscow on his way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, when he was detained, is an outspoken critic of the Tajik government, which asked Russia to arrest and extradite him. His paper has frequently accused Tajik government officials of corruption, nepotism, and drug trafficking. Atovullo faced charges of sedition and insulting the president, and would have faced the death penalty if extradited, according to his lawyer. Russian authorities denied the extradition request, and on July 11, Atovullo returned to Germany, where he now lives in exile.

Under the country’s media laws, the state Committee for Television and Radio has legal authority to invoke prior censorship of broadcast programming. Applications for broadcasting licenses can take years to be processed; the news agency Asia-Plus, for example, has waited in vain for three years to obtain a radio broadcasting license.

Tajik officials are notoriously secretive and unaccountable to the public for their actions. Journalists are often arbitrarily denied access to press conferences, and Russian journalists accredited in Tajikistan complain that officials harass them in response to criticism.

In this bleak picture, one relatively bright spot is the northern province of Sugd, near Tajikistan’s Uzbek border. A July report by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network reported that 16 independent television and radio stations operate in the region without undue pressure from local authorities. International organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Eurasia Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Internews support the new ventures. Local observers attribute the relative freedom in Sugd to the government’s desire to foster nationalism in an area where people tend to have close ties with Tajikistan’s neighbor, Uzbekistan. Sugd, which avoided much of the civil war’s economic and political turmoil, is also more stable than the rest of the country.

Tajikistan has an 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) border with Afghanistan and was the main point of entry for foreign journalists covering the U.S. military operations against Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Tajik Foreign Ministry reported in October that in the previous month, 1,300 foreign journalists had arrived in the capital, Dushanbe, compared with a total of 1,600 over the previous eight years. Dushanbe was unprepared for the influx, and there were reportedly high prices charged for scarce resources and transportation over the border into northern Afghanistan.

July 5

Dodojon Atovullo, Charogi Ruz

Atovullo, a Tajik journalist and opposition activist who had been detained in Moscow since July 5 while Russian authorities considered extraditing him to Tajikistan, was released and returned to Germany, where he lives in exile with his family.

Russian authorities apprehended Atovullo at the Sheremetevo Airport outside Moscow on the evening of Thursday, July 5, while he was en route from Germany to Uzbekistan, local and international media reported.

The arrest allegedly came in response to a request from Tajik officials, who in April charged the journalist with insulting Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov; supporting the violent removal of the constitutional order; and inciting ethnic, racial, and religious hatred.

If Russia had granted the extradition request, Atovullo would have faced prosecution under Tajikistan’s harsh criminal libel and defamation laws. He would also have risked violence in a country where local law enforcement agencies are responsible for frequent harassment, beatings, and threats against journalists, according to CPJ research.

A Russian prosecutor told Atovullo that President Putin had personally ordered his release. But the prosecutor urged Atovullo to leave the country at once, claiming that the Russian government could not provide him with protection.

According to Atovullo’s lawyer, Andrei Rakhmilovich, the charges against Atovullo resulted from articles about Tajik government corruption that he published in his own newspaper and in the Russian press.

Atovullo, 46, is the publisher of the influential Tajik opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz as well as a prominent opposition activist. Tajik authorities banned Charogi Ruz in 1992, and Atovullo moved the paper to Moscow a year later. The paper, which is distributed throughout Central Asia, has been a vocal critic of Tajikistan’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic ruling elite.

On July 12, CPJ published a news alert about Atovullo’s release.