Azda TV presenter Firuz Hayit, seen here on the channel's flagship "Imruz" (Today) show, is one of the journalists whose family members have been harassed, according to information shared with CPJ. (Screenshot: Azda TV)
Azda TV presenter Firuz Hayit, seen here on the channel's flagship "Imruz" (Today) show, is one of the journalists whose family members have been harassed, according to information shared with CPJ. (Screenshot: Azda TV)

CPJ calls on Tajikistan authorities to stop harassing relatives of exiled journalists

Stockholm, May 24, 2024—Tajikistan authorities must end their harassment of family members of journalists with independent Europe-based broadcaster Azda TV and allow exiled journalists to work without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Since late last year, Tajik law enforcement agencies have repeatedly summoned, interrogated, and threatened relatives of five Azda TV journalists in relation to the journalists’ work, according to Azda TV director and chief editor Muhamadjon Kabirov, who spoke to CPJ by telephone. Kabirov said the harassment of the journalists’ family members has been going on for several years but has intensified in recent months.

Separately, four of the five Azda TV journalists feature alongside at least a dozen exiled Tajik journalists in a Russian interior ministry wanted list published by Russian media earlier this year. Kabirov told CPJ there was “little doubt” Russian authorities placed them there at the request of the Tajik government.

International rights organizations regularly name Tajikistan as one of the world’s most prolific perpetrators of transnational repression – the silencing of overseas dissent by tactics including a suspected assassination, rendition, and family intimidation. CPJ has repeatedly documented how Tajik authorities harass relatives of exiled journalists in retaliation for the journalists’ work.

“Tajikistan continues to uphold its dismal reputation as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of transnational repression. Having forced dozens of journalists into exile, authorities continue to hound and harass them by targeting their relatives. No journalist should have to endure the anguish of knowing they are putting their loved ones at risk,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Tajik authorities must stop this appalling practice of transnational punishment. Exiled journalists play a crucial role in delivering independent news and countering Russian propaganda in Tajikistan, and Western governments and journalist organizations should support them.”

Azda TV was formed in 2019 and publishes primarily on YouTube, where it has almost 180,000 subscribers across its Tajik and Russian-language channels, which feature a popular flagship daily news show. The outlet’s website has been blocked in Tajikistan, according to Kabirov.

Kabirov told CPJ that Tajik police and prosecutors have summoned his father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law on “dozens” of occasions in the past months, pressuring them to persuade Kabirov to cease his work and convince him and his wife to return to Tajikistan. Kabirov’s 72-year-old father-in-law passed away from a heart attack the day after one of these repeat interrogations, he said, but added that he didn’t have enough information to say whether this was related to authorities’ harassment.

Tajik law enforcement have similarly harassed relatives of Azda TV presenters Firuz Hayit and Shuhrat Rahmatullo, and journalists Amrullo Nizomov and Mahmadsharif Magzumzoda – at times summoning them two or three times a month over the journalists’ work, according to information from the journalists passed to CPJ by Kabirov. Nizomov told CPJ that police detained his two brothers for a week last September and beat them, and have continued to summon them since, which he believes is due to his work for Azda and critical posts on social media.

Tajik authorities have not officially announced a ban on Azda TV as “extremist” as they have with other exiled media, but in 2022 they justified a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down to journalist Abdullo Ghurbati in part with his subscription to Azda TV’s YouTube channel, saying the outlet was linked to “extremist and terrorist” opposition groups.

Several Azda TV staff fled Tajikistan along with what reports say could be dozens of journalists in 2015-17, amid a crackdown that followed the banning of the country’s main opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Kabirov and several of his colleagues are closely related to prominent exiled or jailed IRPT leaders, while Kabirov is also a well-known human rights activist, and his and his colleagues’ family members have previously been targeted for these reasons, but the journalists told CPJ they are certain that recent pressure is due to their journalistic work.

Harassment of the journalists’ family members has peaked in relation to Azda’s coverage of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visits to Europe in September and April, which accompanied a wider wave of pressure on relatives of Europe-based Tajik activists, Kabirov said, but the harassment has strengthened over the past two years as Azda’s reports have become more analytical and as alternative critical voices have increasingly been silenced.

CPJ has previously documented how Tajik authorities have harassed relatives of exiled journalists Humayra Bakhtiyar, Mirzo Salimpur, and Anora Sarkorova. Last year, Shavkatjon Sharipov, head of broadcasting at exiled news outlet Payom, alleged that Tajik authorities extradited his brother from Russia on what he described as spurious extremism charges in retaliation for Sharipov’s work.

In February, independent Russian outlet Mediazona published the Russian interior ministry’s full database of wanted individuals. CPJ has identified the names of a dozen Tajik journalists on the list: Kabirov, Rahmatullo, Nizomov, and Magzumzoda from Azda TV; journalists Sharipov, Abdumanon Sheraliev, Tahmina Bobokhonova, and Soima Saidova from Payom;  Muhamadiqbol Sadriddinov (Sadurdinov), founder of exile-based broadcaster Isloh TV; independent journalist and activist Temur Varky (Klychev); and ethnic Pamiri journalists Anora Sarkorova and Rustam Joni (Djoniev).

Some of the journalists told CPJ they were aware of retaliatory criminal cases or convictions against them, and others have previously been reported in the media, while Tajik authorities confirmed a criminal case against Sarkorova following the publication of the Mediazona report. Kabirov said he, Nizomov, and Magzumzoda were not aware of any criminal prosecution against them in Tajikistan but that they weren’t surprised  to find themselves on the wanted list. “The Tajik government uses any mechanisms and opportunities to target activists and journalists,” Kabirov said, adding that the Azda journalists “usually avoid travelling to post-Soviet countries” due to the risk of extradition to Tajikistan.

CPJ emailed Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Office of the Prosecutor-General for comment, but did not receive any replies.