Tajik weekly ordered to pay damages for defamation

New York, February 25, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by today’s defamation ruling against independent Tajik weekly Imruz News in closed court proceedings, the organization said.

The Ismoil Somoni District court in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, ordered the weekly to pay 50,000 somoni (US$10,500) in damages in a libel case filed by the son of a high-ranking government official, local and international press reported. The court also ordered the paper to publicly apologize to the plaintiff.

The case, filed in January by Rustam Hukumov, son of the head of Tajikistan’s State Rail Company, stems from an October 2012 article published by Imruz News which questioned the reasons behind the plaintiff’s release from a Russian jail a year earlier. The newspaper also alleged that Hukumov’s case resulted in diplomatic tensions between Russia and Tajikistan.

In an interview with the independent regional news website Asia-Plus, Naziri Nusrat, the weekly’s chief editor, called the ruling biased and said the publication will appeal.

Nusrat told Asia-Plus that his newsroom stands by its reporting, and that his journalists did not insult Hukumov. According to Nusrat, the paper’s lawyers requested that the court commission a linguistic review of the disputed article and also asked to seek official comment from Russian prosecutors on Hukumov’s release from jail. Both requests were denied. However, when the plaintiff’s lawyers asked the court to close the proceedings to the public their request was granted, the BBC Russian service reported.

“We are disturbed by the closed nature of the trial against Imruz News and concerned that the damages awarded could have a chilling effect on local independent media,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program research associate, Muzaffar Suleymanov. “Those entrusted with public office in Tajikistan cannot expect to be exempt from public scrutiny.”

Although Tajikistan decriminalized libel last year, state officials regularly file defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing critical stories, CPJ research shows.

Russian authorities arrested Hukumov in June 2008 on charges of drug trafficking and sentenced him to nine and a half years in jail in September 2010. However a year later, in December 2011, Hukumov was acquitted on appeal and released, news reports said.

In the disputed article, Imruz News reported that Russian authorities freed Hukumov from jail in exchange for two Russian pilots being released from a Tajik prison. The pilots were jailed in March 2011 on accusations of smuggling airplane parts, the BBC Russian service reported.