Tajikistan blames censorship on complaints by citizens

In the last year, CPJ has documented a disturbing trend of attacks against the press in Tajikistan: the frequent blocking orders that the State Communications Agency has issued to local Internet service providers. Delivered in most instances via text message, the orders urge the ISPs to block nationwide access to local and international news websites that criticize President Emomali Rahmon and his authoritarian policies, and publicize issues like widespread government corruption and rising unemployment.

Last year alone, the orders were issued at least three times against several news websites and included sites like Facebook and YouTube. The head of the country’s Internet Service Providers Association said publicly that the agency sent a text message to local ISPs, ordering them to block sites. In most instances, the orders were given by Beg Zuhurov, head of the State Communications Agency, local news reports said.

Most of the time, Tajik authorities deny their involvement and cite technical problems beyond their control. But in a rare November statement and, most recently, on Wednesday, Zuhurov and his colleagues at the agency identified another source of attacks. Facebook, Zuhurov said in November, was a “hotbed of slander” and had been blocked at the request of what he called a group of “concerned citizens.” This was not a slip of the tongue–his deputy, Rafikjon Shokirov, mentioned the same group during his statement to the press on Wednesday.

Shokirov spoke at a press conference about the domestic growth of the Internet, Radio Ozodi reported. He spoke of progress–Internet users in the country had increased to 3.7 million, reports said. But, while speaking about the numbers, the official inadvertently touched upon a dangerous subject.

Why was the agency blocking news websites, who gave the orders, and who was this group of unhappy citizens?, journalists asked him at the press conference.

Shokirov gave a vague reply–civil code prohibits publishing defamatory information, he said, and did not offer further details. He denied that the agency had sent any blocking orders to Internet service providers via text message. And when it came to the identity of the “concerned citizens,” he didn’t offer further specifics beyond saying, “They are ordinary people, like you and I. They call the Communications Agency and ask us not to allow publishing libelous and defamatory materials,” according to Radio Ozodi.

But local media experts believe the group of “concerned citizens” is nothing less than a group of state agents who are tasked specifically with monitoring the Internet and flagging any content they believe to be critical of the president or government officials.

In other words, authorities in Tajikistan are rushing to join the regional club of Internet censors.

This explanation fits events in recent history: International websites of the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RIA Novosti, and the Russian Lenta, and local websites Asia Plus, TojNews, and Ozodagon, were all blocked domestically after reporting on government corruption, rising unemployment, the deepening energy crisis, and the state’s crackdown on religious groups.

But no one appeared to be defamed by these reports. These reports were merely critical commentary on the state of affairs in Tajikistan.