Attacks on the Press 2003: Tajikistan

The Tajik media continued to be haunted in 2003 by the devastating legacy of the 1992-1997 civil war, which pitted the People’s Front, a paramilitary organization led by the current president, Imomali Rakhmonov, against a coalition of Islamic and nationalist groups. Because of widespread poverty–a result of the war, geographic isolation, and a string of natural disasters–reporters often work in run-down offices with outdated equipment. Only a small fraction of the population can afford to buy newspapers or access the Internet. Scared by the murders of dozens of their colleagues and the failure of authorities to solve them, journalists continue to limit their reporting to avoid official harassment and intimidation.

President Rakhmonov nurtured his role as an ally in the United States’ “war on terror” to consolidate his rule over the country. Following his December 2002 meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. President George W. Bush, Rakhmonov won a controversial constitutional referendum in June that gave him the right to run for two more terms, which could allow him to stay in office until 2020.

Rakhmonov relied on the slavish propaganda from the Soviet-style state media to promote his image. In August, the president basked in two days of constant television coverage of his participation in a conference on potato farming. In October, however, when real news broke about a typhoid outbreak in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, the state-run media delayed covering the epidemic for several weeks until after the end of the Central Asian Games, which were taking place in the city.

A CPJ delegation traveled to Tajikistan in July and encouraged senior officials to combat the culture of fear and self-censorship among the media that lingers from the civil war. The delegation urged officials to investigate and prosecute those responsible for murdering dozens of journalists. CPJ first visited Tajikistan in 1994 and found that both parties to the conflict–President Rakhmonov’s People’s Front and the United Tajik Opposition–were targeting journalists in reprisal for their work.

Senior officials from the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office who met with CPJ eagerly pointed to the October 2002 creation of a special task force of police officers and prosecutors to investigate political murders carried out during the civil war. Journalists, however, expressed skepticism about the government’s intentions. They said commanders from the People’s Front linked to the killings are now serving in senior posts in the Interior Ministry, the security apparatus, and the Prosecutor General’s Office.

CPJ also called on the government to reverse its culture of secrecy by making its activities and deliberations more accessible to journalists and the public. The Foreign Affairs Ministry and Rakhmonov’s administration expressed a degree of openness on the issue, but other institutions such as the Broadcasting Commission and the Committee for Radio and Television Broadcasting flatly stated that their activities were not matters of public interest.

A week after the CPJ delegation left Tajikistan, the country’s Supreme Court convicted two suspects in the murders of Muhiddin Olimpur, head of the BBC’s Persian Service bureau, and Viktor Nikulin, a correspondent with the Russian television network ORT. Both journalists were killed during the civil war in the mid-1990s. The two suspects were sentenced to 15 and 22 years in prison, respectively, for serving as accomplices in the slayings. Journalists welcomed the convictions but said they doubted that the trials represented a larger government commitment to fully investigate the dozens of other murders of journalists.

During the CPJ delegation’s visit, Deputy Prosecutor General Azizmat Imomov and Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, who is also president of Parliament, agreed to respond to formal letters from CPJ regarding unsolved murder cases and criminal defamation laws. By year’s end, CPJ had received no response from Ubaidulloyev. In December, however, CPJ received a letter from the Prosecutor General’s Office stating that it was unaware of some of the murder cases on CPJ’s list and would open inquiries into them.

Government harassment continued to threaten the country’s fledgling independent press throughout 2003. Journalists avoided reporting on sensitive political issues such as government corruption, drug trafficking, and organized crime and struggled to obtain basic information from Tajikistan’s secretive bureaucracy. Direct criticism of the president and other senior officials remained taboo, and several publications faced retribution after testing the government’s limited tolerance for public debate.

In February, Mukhtor Bokizoda, editor of the independent weekly Nerui Sukhan, was summoned to the Dushanbe Prosecutor’s Office for questioning after publishing an interview with an opposition leader. In December, tax inspectors visited the weekly after a string of articles in 2003 criticized government policies.

During the summer, Internet service providers blocked access to the Web site, allegedly at the request of officials angered by content that criticized government polices. Authorities denied making the request. In November and December, the state-run printing monopoly Sharki Ozod, which is controlled by the president’s administration, refused to print the independent weekly Ruzi Nav after it recounted Rakhmonov’s ascent to power and criticized excessive perks for government officials.

The government ignored the concerns of the country’s independent media in 2003. A letter signed by 29 prominent media executives to the president and Parliament in April requesting desperately needed exemptions from the country’s heavy tax and customs duties went unanswered. The government also obstructed the development of private broadcast media by delaying licensing applications, sometimes for several years. In September, the Broadcasting Commission rejected a television broadcasting application made by the media holding company Asia-Plus, citing a lack of technical equipment and qualified personnel. An Asia-Plus executive told CPJ that the government never inspected their equipment or inquired about their personnel.

Even journalists working for the foreign press were not safe from government harassment. Abbas Djavadi, director of the Tajik Service at the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported in April that officials had recently threatened to close the broadcaster’s Dushanbe bureau and revoke its journalists’ accreditation for reporting on a forthcoming reshuffling of government ministers, as well as for interviewing a member of an exiled opposition group.