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Freedom of Media in Tajikistan: “The Pandemic Has Become a Convenient Tool for Tightening the Screws”

Tajik journalist Abdullo Gurbati was attacked again. The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that the attacked journalist was trying to “take advantage of others’ grief” and wanted to turn local residents against the government. At the same time, a number of Tajik journalists say that they also feel the increased pressure.


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Abdullo Gurbati. Photo: asiaplustj.info
Abdullo Gurbati. Photo: asiaplustj.info

Abdullo Gurbati was attacked in the morning of May 29, when he went to Khuroson district of Khatlon region in Southern Tajikistan to report about mudflow-affected residents.

According to Gurbati, a car with three unidentified individuals drove up to him near the tent camp. 

One of them introduced himself as the Chairman of mahalla (a part of the city or village) and demanded Gurbati to introduce himself. Gurbati told that he was a journalist and came to produce journalistic material about the consequences of the natural disaster.

“After that, the man asked me: “You came here at such a time to arrange a provocation? You must get a shooting permit from me,” Gurbati recalls.

Then, the journalist replied that he is not legally obliged to obtain someone’s permission to prepare such material. After these words, one of the strangers unexpectedly hit Gurbati in the face and head several times, causing the journalist to fall down. The beating did not stop there. Two other strangers silently watched this.

The attacker stopped the beating only when Gurbati started to bleed from his mouth.

After that, three strangers left the scene on their car. Gurbati was able to capture on phone the moment when they got into the car and drove off.

However, the journalist’s phone was confiscated at the local police station under the pretext that he may not stay in the administrative building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the phone. When the phone was returned to the journalist, it was already blocked. Gurbati suggests that this happened due to repeated unsuccessful attempts to unlock the phone.

On the same day, Deputy Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Department of the Khatlon Region Shamsullo Abdullozoda arrived and promised Gurbati that the attackers would be found.

However, the next day, May 30, a statement appeared on the official website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which claimed that Gurbati provoked a conflict himself.

“Yesterday, the Asia Plus media’s reporter Abdulloh Gurbati, despite the unwillingness of the Khuroson district’s residents to allow him inside the tent where they temporarily live after the natural disaster, tried to get inside and shoot on video the victims’ families, especially minors, and then prepare “front-page story”, the statement notes. “He also wanted to turn the residents against the state and government. The residents did not like this journalist’s behavior, so they drove Abdullo Gurbati out and did not allow him to violate the inviolability of the residence and interfere their private lives.”

Screenshot: mvd.tj
Screenshot: mvd.tj

The police states:  “The reporter, despite the residents’ refusal, continued to shoot the video, which caused the conflict violating public order between the residents and Abdulloh Gurbati.

The statement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was published under the headline “You Cannot Build Happiness From Others’ Unhappiness”.

Only after international organizations’ appeals and the journalists’ demands, on June 2, district police found three attackers.

They were Khuroson district’s residents Suhrob Boboev, Abdulmajid Davlatov and Kurbonali Gulomov, who have nothing to do with the disaster’s victims and the tent camp.

According to Gurbati’s lawyer Abdurahmon Sharipov, the attackers motivated their actions by the fact that recently, a journalist shot a video about local woman without permission, after which her husband decided to divorce her.

“When they saw Abdullo with the camera, they told him not to shoot the residents of the tent camp. A conflict arose between them and one of them hit Gurbati,” the lawyer said.

On the same day, a trial was held where all three attackers were found guilty of violating Article 460 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Republic of Tajikistan (“Petty hooliganism”). The court fined each person 580 somoni (about $50).

Asia-Plus journalist Abdullo Gurbati is the author of several impactful publications. One of them revealed the feverish demand for food products that arose in early March after rumors of a possible shortage due to coronavirus.

In early May, unidentified persons beat Gurbati near his house. According to the journalist, the attackers were not found.

Gurbati’s short Facebook publication from May 23 had a great impact. He spoke about the President’s assistance to healthcare workers fighting pandemic. Gurbati’s mother, who is a doctor, also received this assistance. It included 400 grams of buckwheat, 600 grams of pasta, 800 grams of rice, 800 grams of vegetable oil, 10 kilograms of flour, 1.6 kilograms of potatoes, 4 kilograms of onions, ten carrots and one cabbage.

This post was commented by several fake accounts allegedly associated with the so-called “Answer Factory”. They insulted Gurbati in their comments.

Answer Factory is a centralized network of anonymous authors and fake accounts who are advocating for the Tajik authorities in the media and social networks in recent years. Since such publications did not specify their authors, Tajik journalists called them “Answer Factory”.

In addition, some Tajik media published materials stating that Gurbati has connections with groups outside the country.

Threats After Banned Party Leader’s Interview

On May 22, RFE/RL Tajik Service Radio Ozodi journalist Shahlo Gulhoja hosted an online meeting with Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tajikistan recognized the Party as a terrorist organization banned in Tajikistan – Ed.), and Sobir Valiev, former opposition leader who recently returned to the homeland.

The countering coronavirus in the country, human rights violations in Tajikistan and ways to overcome the crisis were discussed during the meeting.

After the interview was published on social networks, the mentioned Answer Factory published the insulting cartoons picturing Shahlo Gulhoja. In the comments, Gulhoja was accused of betrayal and “supporting the terrorists”.

The Head of Radio Ozodi Salim Ayubzod says that the media’s journalists are continuously being pressured.

Salim Ayubzod. Photo: ozodi.org
Salim Ayubzod. Photo: ozodi.org

“They are being dragged into fights; threating verbal attacks are taking place on the streets. They are being monitored, subjected to telephone terrorism. They are threatened with refusal of accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Consideration of accreditation applications lasts for years. During the year at this position, there were four violent attacks on our reporters,” Ayubzod said.

However, according to Ayubzod, the main threat is creation of the image of Radio Ozodi as the enemy and the creation of hatred around the Radio’s employees.

One of the Radio Ozodi’s journalists anonymously told that he had received threats since 2016.

“I was told that they knew where my relatives live, and thus, they psychologically abused me. Now, different fakes text me, publish articles, make different cartoons with my photos, threaten relatives who are in Tajikistan. Of course, it is a pressure, but the work must be continued. Who will work if not us?” the journalist says.

The annual ranking of the international organization “Reporters Without Borders” for 2020 placed Tajikistan on 161st position and included it to the “blacklist” of countries where freedom of speech is violated. Tajikistan has been in the blacklist since 2013, when it dropped to 123rd place in the ranking. In April, the Justice for Journalists International Foundation published a research stating that 81 threats against journalists have been registered during the last three years (2017-2019).

Daler Sharifov. Photo: Asiaplustj.info
Daler Sharifov. Photo: Asiaplustj.info

This list did not include Daler Sharipov, sentenced in April this year to one year on charges of inciting religious hatred in his book on Islam and Terrorism.

The most threats are accusations of extremism, connections with terrorists, criminal prosecution and imprisonment. In particular, the coverage of any topics related to the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tajikistan recognized the Party as a terrorist organization banned in Tajikistan – Ed.) increases pressure on journalists who raise this issue: they are accused of connection to terrorists and threaten with criminal cases.

Researchers see government authorities as the main source of threats.

“Threats of Rape”

One of the local journalists anonymously told that she is being pressured because of her relatives, who criticize certain decisions of the authorities on social networks.

She lost her previous job because of her relatives’ actions. Now she is afraid to lose the current job.

“I receive threats of rape in social networks. As a woman, I do not feel safe,” says Sabrina.

She considers it unfair to be psychological abused because of relatives. Recently, she goes out only if necessary, works remotely, tries to communicate with people less and does not appear on social networks.

“The best is to try not to stress. I have little children. I have to take care of them and to take care of myself for them,” says Sabrina.

Recently, the Tajik Parliament adopted a draft amendment to the Code of Administrative Offenses, imposing fines for the dissemination of inaccurate and fake information in media about the pandemic. If the bill enters into force, individuals will be fined 580 somoni (about $50) for the dissemination of such information. The media could be fined up to 11.600 somoni (about $1.1 thousand).

In CABAR.asia interview, the Founder of YOUR.tj portal Zebo Tadjibaeva said that the pandemic has become a convenient tool for tightening the screws.

Zebo Tadjibaeva. Photo: CABAR.asia
Zebo Tadjibaeva. Photo: CABAR.asia

“In fact, the law is violated everywhere now, and some violations by the authorities are criminal offenses,” said Tadjibaeva.

In her opinion, the situation with journalists will be aggravated.

“There is no logic in pressuring the journalists, the pursued goals are impossible to understand,” Tadjibaeva said.

The fact that the Answer Factory’s opinions are published in independent media is of particular regret, she says.

“Journalists will have to be prepared to defend themselves from two sides for some time,” says Zebo Tadjibaeva.

Rajab Mirzo. Photo from personal Facebook page
Rajab Mirzo. Photo from personal Facebook page

Another journalist Rajabi Mirzo has recently become a target for criticism of the members of Peshohangi Jomea group (“Vanguard of the Society” – Tr.), created with the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ support. Their materials are published both in state and party newspapers, as well as in some independent media.

In CABAR.asia interview, Rajab Mirzo said he had received threats and insults for the past 10 years, but tried not to pay attention to them each time.

“However, the latest articles were a blow under the belt, they referred to my personal life, things that I did not want to discuss with anyone. Later I concluded that the purpose of such articles is nothing more than an attempt to provoke me so that I lose my temper. Therefore, I decided to continue to ignore it further and continue to do my job,” Mirzo says.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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