The devastating legacy of the civil war (1992-1997) between President Imomali Rakhmonov’s government and various opposition parties for control over the country continued to haunt the Tajik media in 2002. Because of widespread poverty–a result of the war and a subsequent string of natural disasters–reporters often work in run-down offices with outdated equipment. Only a small fraction of the population can access or afford the Internet. Moreover, the media community remains small, since many of the country’s leading journalists either fled during the civil war or perished in it. (Tens of thousands died during the conflict, including at least 24 journalists.) Scarred by the violent murders of their colleagues, many journalists heavily censor themselves to avoid retribution. And the government’s failure to effectively investigate cases of murdered journalists only deepens the press’ sense of insecurity.
During 2002, official harassment and reprisal continued to threaten journalists who dared to criticize authorities or report on sensitive issues. Journalists struggled to access information, and some ministries remained completely closed to the press. By and large, journalists avoided stories about official corruption, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry castigated media outlets that covered a typhoid outbreak in the capital, Dushanbe, and the government criticized journalists who reported on a border agreement that yielded territory to China. In late October, military officials conscripted three independent television journalists in the northern city of Khujand, apparently in retaliation for a program they had produced that criticized the conscription of young men into military service.
In April, Parliament passed a vague Media Law amendment banning repressive treatment of the media and obstruction of journalists’ work. Libel, however, remains a criminal offense in Tajikistan, carrying a five-year prison term when committed against the president.
With Tajikistan remaining a base for thousands of foreign journalists covering the U.S.-led military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, many enterprising locals have begun catering to foreigners’ tastes, even selling T-shirts featuring Osama bin Laden’s portrait at a price that exceeds the average Tajik’s monthly income. The government’s small concessions to the media may be intended to acquire greater military and economic aid by convincing the West that the country is moving toward democracy.
In April, CPJ deputy director Joel Simon and Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Alex Lupis met in New York City with Tajik foreign minister Talbak Nazarov and the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Rashid Alimov, to discuss Tajikistan’s press freedom record and to protest the government’s persecution of Dodojon Atovullo, exiled editor of the opposition newspaper Charogi Ruz. In April 2001, the Tajik government brought criminal charges against Atovullo for sedition and insulting the president in retaliation for the journalist’s criticism of government officials.
In late June, in a show of goodwill, the Tajik government dropped the charges against Atovullo, paving the way for his return to Tajikistan. However, the journalist remains in exile and told CPJ that he is wary of returning. “The authorities may allow me to go back, but only in return for my silence,” he said.
Meanwhile, during 2002, the State Committee for Television and Radio (SCTR) granted private radio stations Asia-Plus, Asia-FM, and Radio Vatan licenses to broadcast in Dushanbe. Previously, the SCTR routinely denied licenses to private broadcasters. Asia-Plus had been seeking the license since 1998.
Independent media agency Asia-Plus was refused a broadcast license by the State Committee for Television and Radio. In 1998, Asia-Plus had applied to open a radio station in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, where only state-run television and radio stations Œperated. The agency received a brief reply from the committee on July 8 stating that another radio station in Dushanbe was “unnecessary.”
Asia-Plus director Umed Babakhanov told CPJ he believes that the committee’s decision can be attributed to two factors. “The first is that the state doesn’t want competition in this market and wishes to maintain its monopoly. The second reason is that some top officials fear the appearance of an independent station that is outside their control.”
On April 19, CPJ deputy director Joel Simon and Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Alex Lupis met with Tajik foreign minister Talbak Nazarov in New York City to discuss press freedom issues. CPJ then sent a letter to Nazarov on May 8 outlining specific press freedom problems, including the inability of Asia-Plus to obtain a broadcast license.
In a July 29 meeting in Vienna, Austria, with Hamrokhon Zaripov, the Tajik ambassador to Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary, CPJ Europe and Central Asia consultant Emma Gray raised the Asia-Plus case in a two-hour discussion on press freedom issues. On July 29, Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov met with Asia-Plus director Babakhanov and said he would instruct the committee to issue the license. Asia-Plus began broadcasting in early September.
Akram Azizov, SM-1
Nazim Rakhimov, SM-1
Yusuf Yunusov, TRK-Asia
Makhmud Dadabayev, SM-1
Yunusov, a 21-year-old with TRK-Asia, Azizov, 21, and Rakhimov, 20, both of SM-1, were conscripted into military service in retaliation for producing a talk show that criticized local military officials, according to local and international reports.
The program, which aired on October 24 and 27, was produced by journalists from the local, independent television stations SM-1 and TRK-Asia in the northern city of Khujand and reported that the military uses gangs to forcibly recruit young men into military service. During the show, senior military officer Faziliddin Domonov denied the use of such aggressive tactics, the New York-based Eurasianet Web site reported. The program reportedly enraged Domonov, who called the station on October 25 and threatened to conscript the journalists.
On October 28, four military officials burst into the SM-1 and TRK-Asia offices and arrested nine journalists who had produced and participated in the talk show. While the journalists were in detention, officials told them “you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” and “we’ll show you how to present us on television,” the Moscow-based press freedom group Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported. Six journalists were eventually released, but Yunusov, Azizov, and Rakhimov were conscripted and remained in the military at year’s end.
On the evening of November 5, a military officer called SM-1 director Dadabayev and threatened to kill him and close his station, the Tajikistan office of the U.S. media training organization Internews reported.