Mullorajab Yusufzoda, (left) journalist with Radio Ozodi, and Anushervon Orifov, reporter with Current Time TV, were separately attacked by unidentified men after they interviewed the same activist on May 17, 2022. (Screenshot: Radio Ozodi/YouTube)

Tajikistan outlet threatened with closure; 4 journalists attacked during unrest coverage

New York, May 20, 2022 – Tajikistan authorities must withdraw their official warning against independent outlet Asia Plus, swiftly and transparently investigate attacks on four journalists, and ensure that reporters can freely cover events of public importance, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Tuesday, May 17, Asia Plus announced that it was ceasing coverage of ongoing protests in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (Badakhshan/GBAR) after receiving an official warning from the country’s prosecutor general threatening to shutter the outlet unless it modified its coverage of the events, according to news reports and a statement published on the Asia Plus website.

Separately on May 17, journalist Mullorajab Yusufzoda, known as Yusufi, and video journalist Barotali Nazarov, pen name Barot Yusufi, who both work for U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tajik service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, were leaving an interview with an activist when two unidentified men approached them, beat them, and stole their equipment, according to reports by RFE/RL and Radio Ozodi, and Yusufzoda. The latter spoke to CPJ by telephone.

Later, three unidentified individuals stole the equipment of reporter Anushervon Orifov and camera operator Nasim Isamov with Current Time TV, a Russian-language outlet run by RFE/RL, according to those sources and Orifov, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Orifov and Isamov were also leaving an interview with the same activist, who Tajik authorities have accused of organizing the Badakhshan/GBAR protests, leading the journalists to believe it was a coordinated attack.

“Tajikistan authorities’ actions against Asia Plus amid the continuing internet shutdown in the Badakhshan region constitute censorship and must stop immediately,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “The attacks on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists are unacceptable. Authorities in Tajikistan must conduct a credible investigation into these attacks, hold those responsible to account, and ensure that journalists can provide the Tajik public and the rest of the world with reliable information about events in the region.”

At least 25 people are reported to have died since Tajik authorities sent troops to quell protests that broke out in the ethnically and linguistically distinct Badakhshan/GBAR region on May 14. Since May 16, the internet in the regional capital Khorog and surrounding districts has been shut down, a move authorities previously used in the region following similar anti-government protests from November 2021 to March 2022.

In its statement, Asia Plus said it had received an official warning from the Prosecutor’s Office and an unspecified number of unofficial warnings from other unnamed state agencies accusing it of “one-sided” coverage of events in Badakhshan/GBAR and of “destabilizing the situation in the country.” Authorities ordered the outlet to “address these shortcomings” or else face closure, it said.

CPJ called Asia Plus, but the outlet’s management declined to comment beyond the published statement. Besides not covering the Badakhshan/GBAR conflict since May 17, the outlet appears to have deleted previous coverage of events in the region, according to a CPJ review of its website.

Asia Plus, Tajikistan’s most popular independent domestic news site, has been intermittently blocked in the country in recent years.

Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Mass Media in Tajikistan, an independent advocacy organization, told CPJ by phone that although there is no specific legal provision in Tajik law stating that authorities can close a media outlet on a second warning, there is a precedent for the Prosecutor General’s Office to apply for the courts to shutter outlets on various grounds if the outlet ignores warnings.

CPJ emailed the Prosecutor General’s Office for comment but did not receive any reply.

The attack on Yusufzoda and Nazarov occurred at around 2 p.m. close to the home of activist and veteran journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva in the capital Dushanbe’s Sino district, Yusufzoda told CPJ. As the journalists returned to their car after interviewing Mamadshoeva, two men approached them and demanded that they hand over their cell phones, on which they had recorded the interview.

When Yusufzoda asked the men who they were, they hit the journalist two or three times in the face, pushed Nazarov to the ground, and repeatedly threatened to shoot Yusufzoda if he did not hand over the phones, Yusufzoda told CPJ, adding that the men were not visibly carrying guns.

The men took three phones, a USB flash drive, chargers, a tripod, and Yusufzoda’s wallet but returned his cash and bank cards, the journalist said.

Around 30 minutes later, as Orifov and Isamov were preparing to drive off after interviewing Mamadshoeva in the same area, a vehicle blocked their exit. Three men got out, one of them grabbing Orifov’s phone through his open window, Orifov said. When Orifov asked the men to identify themselves, they refused and demanded that the journalists hand over the camera they had used when they interviewed Mamadshoeva.  

Based on their clothes and appearance, the journalists believe two of the three men were the same as those who attacked Yusufzoda and Nazarov, Orifov said. The men took the camera and cell phones of the two journalists and their driver.

In both incidents, the men promised to return the journalists’ equipment. Yusufzoda and Orifov told CPJ that for this reason and due to the speed and professionalism of the men’s actions, they believed the men were likely law enforcement officers. It was clear that the men were explicitly seeking the interview recording and that they aimed to prevent the Mamadshoeva interview from being broadcast, the journalists added.

None of the journalists was seriously hurt in the attacks, they told CPJ. They filed a complaint with Dushanbe police over the incidents but said they do not expect the attacks to be adequately investigated, citing a lack of progress in investigating a March 2021 attack on Yusufzoda and Radio Ozodi colleague Shahlo Abdulloeva.

On May 18, the day after the attack on the RFE/RL journalists, officers of the State Committee of National Security arrested Mamadshoeva and charged her with calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order, Radio Ozodi reported. CPJ continues to investigate whether Mamadshoeva’s detention is related to her journalism. 

Tajik journalists have previously anonymously reported receiving warnings and instructions to avoid covering unrest in Badakhshan/GBAR and the ongoing war in Ukraine. A manager at Radio Ozodi confirmed to CPJ by telephone that authorities had pressured Ozodi and other outlets to reduce coverage of Badakhshan but requested not to be cited by name, citing safety concerns.

CPJ emailed the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan for comment, but the email was returned undelivered. CPJ called the Interior Ministry and the State Committee of National Security but the calls were not answered.

[Editors’ Note: The outlet description in the ninth paragraph and the right of reply in the last paragraph have been updated.]