Dear Mr. Ubaydulloyev:
Joel Simon, Josh Friedman, and I appreciated the opportunity to meet with you on July 22 to discuss press freedom conditions in Tajikistan.
We also appreciate your willingness to review a letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) outlining our specific concerns about the country’s criminal defamation laws and problems regarding journalists’ access to government information.
The criminal code of Tajikistan contains three articles criminalizing certain types of speech. Article 135 states that defaming a person’s honor, dignity, or reputation through the distribution of obviously false information can be punished by up to five years’ imprisonment. Article 136 states that insulting a person’s honor and dignity can be punishable by up two years of correctional labor. Article 137 states that insulting or defaming the president can be punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
There is a growing consensus in international law that the imposition of criminal offenses for speech-related transgressions violates fundamental human rights guaranteed under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.”
Tajikistan’s criminal defamation laws stifle public debate, criminalize criticism of public officials, and, thereby, inhibit the development of a democratic culture in the country. Under emerging international legal norms, government officials are entitled to fewer protections than average citizens who do not hold public office. By seeking public office, government officials in Tajikistan have voluntarily exposed themselves to public scrutiny and criticism, including caustic criticism, as a function of their position. By imposing harsh criminal penalties on those who defame or insult the president, Tajikistan’s criminal code ignores this principle.
While CPJ recognizes that private citizens have a right to take legal action to protect their reputations from malicious defamation, we believe that civil redress is adequate in such instances. The citizens of Tajikistan benefit from the free flow of information and ideas and any government action suppressing open debate is inimical to the interests of the country. While journalists have not been prosecuted under the country’s criminal defamation and insult laws in recent years, the threat of criminal prosecution continues to perpetuate a climate of fear and self-censorship and inhibits the development of a free and pluralistic press.
We therefore call on you to introduce legislation that decriminalizes defamation while preserving the right of the people of Tajikistan to seek action through the civil courts in circumstances where their reputations have been damaged with malicious intent.
To further enhance the free flow of information from the government to the people, we call on you to develop procedures to ensure that government activities, including deliberations, are made available to the public in a timely manner.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We hope to continue this dialogue and look forward to receiving your reply.
Europe & Central Asia Program Coordinator