CPJ calls for end to intimidation campaign

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is extremely concerned about an escalating campaign of intimidation and harassment against independent and opposition journalists in Tajikistan. The actions are further eroding press conditions at the very moment your citizens most need a free press–for the run-up to parliamentary elections in early 2005.

Independent weeklies based in the capital of Dushanbe–such as Ruzi Nav (New Day) and Nerui Sukhan (Power of the Word)–and independent journalists have been targeted after criticizing Your Excellency and your administration. Harassment, threats, and assaults have been reported.

We are deeply disturbed that you have failed to stop your subordinates from harassing journalists, or ensure that police and prosecutors investigate and indict individuals who attack journalists.

The clampdown on Ruzi Nav is of particular concern; the newspaper has endured ever-growing pressure from authorities since its launch in August 2003. Ruzi Nav has exposed government corruption and criticized the government’s record in combating drug addiction and prostitution. Disgruntled government officials, including heads of ministries, have threatened Ruzi Nav staff with libel lawsuits for allegedly insulting their honor and dignity. Police and security officers harass reporters on assignment, interfering in coverage of the news.

Tax authorities closed Ruzi Nav‘s printing house, Dzhiyonkhon, on August 19, preventing Ruzi Nav and other publications from printing their coming editions. Dzhiyonkhon, a private operation that has printed Ruzi Nav since December 2003, was shut down for supposed tax violations, but journalists believe the closure was an effort to silence independent media ahead of parliamentary elections, The Associated Press reported.

Ruzi Nav‘s editor, Rajabi Mirzo, told CPJ that the paper looked for alternative printing houses but none agreed to print the publication.

“We have 27 printers in Tajikistan,” Mirzo said, “but it is only Dzhiyonkhon that we could
work with.” He said the paper has filed all necessary applications, but printers say tax authorities have ordered them to refuse Ruzi Nav their services.

In certain instances, senior government officials have threatened Ruzi Nav directly.

On December 29, 2003, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a letter instructing the weekly not to insult the honor and dignity of Your Excellency and your government, and threatened to close the newspaper if it did not follow the directive, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) reported. The official warning was issued after Ruzi Nav published an interview with an opposition leader and several letters from readers who criticized Your Excellency, Mirzo told CPJ.

Assaults and threats have also been reported. On July 29, an unidentified assailant in a bulletproof vest attacked editor-in-chief Rajabi Mirzo. According to local press reports, the man attacked Mirzo around 10 p.m. near his home in Dushanbe, hitting him in the head with an iron bar. Mirzo told CPJ he suffered a concussion and a frontal skull fracture, and was treated at a Dushanbe hospital.
On July 30, the Sino District Interior Ministry Department opened an investigation under Article 111 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan, for deliberately inflicting heavy bodily harm. On August 2, First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurakhim Kakhorov said he is taking the investigation under his personal control, local reports said.

No developments have been reported in the investigation so far.

Mirzo was assaulted once before this year. He and three colleagues were attacked on January 18 while on a business trip in the northern Tajik city of Khujand. After meeting with Ruzi Nav readers, their car was pulled over by five men who beat them without explanation, Mirzo told CPJ. Mirzo said he and his colleagues, fearing for their families’ safety, decided at the time to not publicize the January incident.

In a separate case, Ruzi Nav correspondent Mavlyuda Sultanzoda and her family have been threatened since last November, she told CPJ. Sultanzoda has written articles in Ruzi Nav that criticize Dushanbe Mayor Makhmadasaid Ubaydullayev for being inaccessible to Tajik citizens and for not addressing problems such as drug abuse, prostitution among teenagers, and the trafficking of women. The most recent threats to Sultanzoda came in early August after she wrote a profile of Your Excellency headlined “Kto takoy Rakhmonov?” (Who is Rakhmonov?). The profile raised questions about your record in office, and criticized the lack of transparency in your government’s policies.

Sultanzoda, who also contributes to the independent weekly Nerui Sukhan, told CPJ in a telephone interview from Dushanbe that she has been getting anonymous telephone threats for several months. The callers said she could be raped and killed if she does not stop her critical writing. She added that unidentified men have visited her home and harassed her three young children in her absence. When she reported these threats to local police, Sultanzoda told CPJ, officers did not take her complaints seriously. One asked her: “So what do you want me to do, come to your house and sleep under your bed?”
Reports involving other independent publications and journalists are deeply disturbing as well. Nerui Sukhan, an independent weekly that has reported critically about the activities of local and state officials, has been consistently harassed.

On June 7, for example, the Prosecutor General’s Office sent a letter to Nerui Sukhan warning the weekly that it was publishing articles harming the honor and dignity of Your Excellency, members of parliament and other government officials, NANSMIT reported. That same day, Deputy Prosecutor General Dodarjon Maksudov summoned Nerui Sukhan editor-in-chief Mukhtor Bokhizoda and questioned him about articles that criticized government polices, NANSMIT reported.

Nerui Sukhan has also received anonymous threats about articles that oppose your administration and its policies.

On January 9, Nerui Sukhan correspondent Muhhidin Idizoda received a threatening telephone call after writing articles about the well-known Tajik poets Buri Karimov, Bozor Sobir and Gulruhsor Safieva, who have been critical of the government, NANSMIT reported. The anonymous caller said Idizoda would face dire consequences if he continued to write positively about opposition figures.

Most recently, on August 18, tax police seized all copies of the forthcoming edition of Nerui Sukhan for allegedly failing to declare its true circulation, and shut down its private printer Dzhiyonkhon. Three other titles, including Ruzi Nav, could not be printed because no other printing house would agree to run them, citing orders from tax authorities. At the time of this writing, the publications still have not found an alternative printer.

In some cases, independent journalists such as Nargis Zokirova, who works for the independent weekly Biznes I Politika (Business and Politics), have been threatened after writing articles that expressed opinions or presented information that differed from government media.

On February 23, a press secretary for the Justice Ministry’s Department of Corrections threatened to imprison Zokirova for a February 12 article about a woman’s prison in the city of Nurek, NANSMIT reported. On March 2, she received a letter from Department of Corrections Director A.F. Rakhmonov who threatened “to take necessary measures” against her in response to the article, NANSMIT reported.

Government intimidation has also been reported in the case of dissident journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev. After fleeing during the civil war in 1992, he returned to Dushanbe at the end of June–but felt compelled to leave just four days later. Atovulloyev told CPJ in a telephone interview that several agents from Tajikistan’s security services questioned the manager of his hotel in Dushanbe. “They were asking where I go, whom I meet with and whom I visit,” Atovulloyev said.

Atovulloyev had published his opposition newspaper, Charogi Ruz, for a decade while in exile. The newspaper was officially banned in Tajikistan because of its critical reporting. The government lifted the ban in 2002, in part due to pressure from CPJ and other international media watchdogs. Atovulloyev now operates a Web site from Moscow called tajikistantimes.ru, which often criticizes Your Excellency. Site access for Tajik readers is sometimes blocked, Atovulloyev and several sources in Tajikistan told CPJ.
Taken together, these abusive actions reflect a broad campaign to silence media criticism against Your Excellency, your ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, and its parliamentary allies, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2005. Some journalists have linked these abuses to the Information Security Concept you signed in November. In a March 20 speech on Tajik state television, you said the Information Security Concept should be used to “coordinate the activities of the media,” according to a BBC translation of the speech.

Less than a decade after the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan–in which at least 29 journalists were murdered in reprisal for their work–reporters still work in fear. The ongoing campaign of harassment by government officials and other individuals is intensifying a culture of fear that has dominated the Tajik media for years.

A press suppressed by fear cannot play the role democracy demands, informing the public ahead of the parliamentary elections. As a result, we call on you to dismiss government officials who are harassing journalists, and ensure that police and prosecutors aggressively investigate and prosecute those responsible for harassing and attacking journalists.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply


Ann Cooper
Executive Director