Popular uprisings elsewhere in Central Asia spurred Tajikistan to
further crack down on already-limited dissent. Repressive actions flowed from four domestic and regional events: a February 27 parliamentary vote; the Tulip Revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in March; violent unrest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in May; and the prospect of presidential elections in 2006. Timed to each, President Imomali Rakhmonov and his administration censored independent and opposition media, and they harassed and jailed critical journalists.
In January, shortly before the parliamentary election, tax police shut down the printing house that published the popular Tajik-language opposition weekly Nerui Sokhan, based in the capital, Dushanbe, for alleged license violations. The move effectively closed Nerui Sokhan, which many considered the last prominent independent newspaper on the market. The closure was the latest in a series that began in 2004, when Tajik authorities forced out of print Ruzi Nav, Odamu Olan, Adolat, and other opposition and independent newspapers. The government’s most common method: politicized tax inspections followed by charges of tax evasion.
Official results showed that Rakhmonov’s ruling People’s Democratic Party held its majority in the February election, but opposition parties and international observers questioned the legitimacy of the vote. A 150-member monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported vote-count manipulations, a refusal to register candidates, government interference in press coverage, and other irregularities.
Rakhmonov and his allies further censored the media after the March revolt in Kyrgyzstan, which resulted in the ouster of President Askar Akayev; and again following the May unrest in Andijan, Uzbekistan, where, according to independent accounts, security troops fired indiscriminately at antigovernment protesters, killing hundreds of civilians.
In April, a media regulatory body known as the Tajik State Licensing Commission ordered the closing of the private television channel Guli Bodom in the northern Tajik city of Kanibadam. Acting on a complaint from the local mayor, the commission alleged that the station broke the law with its election coverage, but it provided no details of the supposed violation, the Tajik news agency Avesta reported. In May, at the commission’s behest, tax police shuttered Somonien, the only private television station in Dushanbe, sealing its premises and seizing broadcasting equipment. The commission said the station’s license had expired. Somonien and Guli Bodom were among the few television stations that had given airtime to opposition candidates, according to international news reports. Authorities aggressively pursued regulatory efforts throughout the year, independent observers said, to insulate the country from reports of foreign revolt.
Rakhmonov has been in power since 1992. Although a presidential vote is scheduled for 2006, the administration signaled that it has no intention of opening up the press to critical or diverse voices. The London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), quoting local journalists, reported that the government was effectively blocking new media registrations. Authorities denied the allegations. Journalists who sought to launch an FM radio station told IWPR that justice ministry officials advised them not to bother filing an application because it would be turned down. As of May 2005, IWPR said, about 30 applications for new media outlets were languishing in an administrative limbo. In some cases, applicants were asked time and again to correct supposed paperwork errors.
In August, a Dushanbe judge convicted Mukhtor Bokizoda, editor of the shuttered Nerui Sokhan, to two years of “corrective labor” and fined him 1,500 Tajik somoni (US$500). Under the “corrective labor” requirement, Bokizoda was to be assigned a job, and then forfeit 20 percent of his monthly salary to the government. The charges dated to February, when tax authorities accused Bokizoda of stealing electricity to power the printing house of his press advocacy group, the Foundation for the Memory and Protection of Journalists—the same facility used to print Nerui Sokhan. Bokizoda asked an appellate court to review the verdict.
In a sign of authorities’ intolerance of dissent, a judge in northern Tajikistan sentenced independent journalist Jumaboy Tolibov in June to two years in a prison colony on charges that included hooliganism and trespassing. The National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, a press freedom group, said the charges were fabricated in retaliation for three commentaries in which Tolibov criticized the local prosecutor. An appeals court overturned most of the verdict in October, but Tolibov was not freed for another two months.
Many disturbing questions about the country’s brutal 1992–97 civil war remained unresolved. In 2004, after prodding by CPJ, the prosecutor general created a special investigative unit to probe the unsolved slayings of journalists that occurred during the war, but the unit has not reported any results. At least 17 journalists were killed in direct connection to their work, according to CPJ research, while another 12 were killed under circumstances that remain unclear. The People’s Front, a paramilitary group led by Rakhmonov, is believed to have been responsible for many of the killings. A number of People’s Front leaders later assumed top positions in the government.
Tajikistan began tilting diplomatically away from the United States and toward Russia in 2004. Rakhmonov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement in October of that year, providing Tajikistan with military and economic assistance in exchange for allowing Russia a permanent military base in the country.
Rakhmonov reminded journalists of their obligation to support the state in a March 20 address. “The media, regardless of ownership, are equally responsible for observing the current laws and ensuring the country’s information and cultural security,” Rakhmonov was quoted as saying on the Web site Eurasianet. “This responsibility demands of journalists a developed sense…of patriotism and the protection of Tajikistan’s state and national interests.”