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Freedom of Speech in Tajikistan: Don’t Seek, Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk

«The main obstacles and threats to the media are insufficient professional training, self-censorship, insufficient financial resources, poor professional ethics and government interference in the media», – notes Marat Mamadshoev, IWPR’s editor in Tajikistan, in his article for CABAR.asia.

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In recent years, a number of popular independent newspapers have ceased to exist in Tajikistan. About two dozen well-known journalists left Tajikistan, some of them even received asylum in Europe. Photo: osce.org

Without preparation, one can confidently list the negative events or trends that have occurred in the field of Tajik mass media in recent years. It will not be so easy to mention positive evens, mentioned the editor of IWPR in Tajikistan, Marat Mamadshoev.

Actual condition

According to data from the Ministry of Culture of Tajikistan, 371 newspapers (109 state-owned, 262 private), 243 magazines (113 state-owned, 130 non-state), 11 news agencies (10 non-state, 1 state-owned), 34 television companies (20 of which are independent) are registered in the republic.

In the report published in May, the Press Freedom Index of a public organization, “Reporters Without Borders”, Tajikistan had ranked 161 out of 180 countries. The organization says this downgrade is due to blocking sites and the elimination of the “Ozodagon” and “Pike” print media.

In the report of Freedom House “Freedom of the Press – 2017”, Tajikistan with 87 points was ranked among a number of countries with “not free” media.

EU statement: Investments in exchange for freedom of speech

The European Union will continue to provide investment support to Tajikistan only if conditions are created for freedom of speech. On September 9, Peter Burian the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, said in Dushanbe that the issue had been discussed with the Tajik authorities. Burian did not speak about the results of the discussion.

Freedom of media and its components

Freedom of media, as well as freedom of speech, consists of several important components – freedom to seek, receive, produce and disseminate information and enjoy the right to freedom of expression. In addition, feedback between the mass media and entities and public institutions – primarily, the authorities.

Let’s try to go through these components. Note that in some cases they are interconnected and the boundaries between them are arbitrary. That is, in one case, several rights of media and journalists can be simultaneously limited at once.

Freedom of not to seek

The free search for information in Tajikistan is complicated due to a number of prohibitions. A huge layer of socially significant information is classified (for example, the budgets of law enforcement agencies). Courts, especially on high-profile issues, often or almost always take place behind closed doors. Authorities have increased demands on those who are somehow engaged in the search for information – scientists, bloggers, and especially journalists. For example, journalists from foreign media entities are required to obtain compulsory accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

To date, eight journalists and employees of Radio Ozodi have not received accreditation from the MFA of Tajikistan, without which they cannot legally work in the country. However, one journalist has been on standby since 2017. Also, the authorities refused to give permission to open the office of “Russia Today” in the country.

The recent high-profile case of bloggers who were effectively banned from filming in a public place is also a warning to potential researchers.

Authorities also limit technology through which it is possible to access information. Students (pupils) are forbidden to have mobile phones, which deprives them of the opportunity to fix on the camera, for example, inappropriate behavior of teachers.

Kazakhstan ‘s mass media entities (following the example of Russia), are already using drones to obtain socially significant information. However, back in 2016, President Emomali Rahmon signed a decree in Tajikistan that the import, export and use of such devices should be carried out exclusively on the basis of a special permit, which will is issued in agreement with the State Committee for National Security.

Among other technological problems faced by the mass media in Tajikistan, expensive and poor-quality Internet, power outages, problems with buying SIM cards, blocking instant messengers can be included.

Freedom of not to receive

Tajik governmental agencies, with the exception of Turkmen, are perhaps the most secretive in the region.

According to “Ozodi”, “the only opportunity today to receive first-hand information and communicate with officials is a semiannual press conferences. However, lately even they have passed without the participation of senior officials of ministries and governmental agencies, or officials deliberately read out a report on their activities for almost all the time allotted for a press conference.”

This problem has always been relevant for the country. Earlier, the media tried to somehow solve this problem, published ratings of openness of governmental agencies, criticized officials, held round tables.

Now it has been compounded to such an extent that the mass media entities are no longer trying to force officials to speak.

Often, a certain official refuses to communicate with the media even at those moments when it is especially important for them to convey their position to the public, including the international one.

Confirmation can be given by incidents on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Due to the silence of the Tajik security forces, only the Kyrgyz side version was mainly presented in the media, including in the Tajik ones.

I would also like to note that, lastly information on the activities of economic departments is practically not covered by local mass media. As a citizen and an expert, it is sometimes incomprehensible to me what these departments are doing. Maybe their incredible passivity, as well as the disastrous state of the Tajik economy, are the reasons why these structures have nothing to say to journalists.

Freedom of not to produce and not to distribute

Traditionally, Tajik authorities restrict the issuance of licenses for independent television and radio companies. Existing ones mainly produce entertaining content. Other current electronic media have changed editorial policies. For example, Radio “Imruz”, previously known for its social reporting and relevant interviews, has now also switched to an entertainment format.

The production of printed materials is also under control. In fairness, let’s say that there is no direct censorship. However, the printing house must get permission from the State Committee for National Security for the right to print newspapers.

In recent years, a number of popular independent newspapers have ceased to exist in Tajikistan, among which are “Nigoh” and “Ozodagon”. About two dozen well-known journalists left Tajikistan, some of them even received asylum in Europe.

The largest circulations are government publications that use forced subscription channels. The print runs of the independent press are small; there are problems with distribution channels. The current trend is more likely to say that the position of an independent press will be further aggravated.

Independent media websites are constantly blocked on the Internet, which speak about the current problems of the country – agency sites – Asia Plus, Avesta Ozodi, which also reduces their audience. Moreover, even anonymizers and VPN technologies are being blocked.

Tajikistan’s communications service denies involvement in blocking.

Freedom of not to speak and freedom of not being heard

Authorities still continue to put pressure on critics. For example, this year in June, journalist of “Ozodi”, Barot Yusufi was denied in accreditation right after he published critical materials, including material on the so-called “response factory”.

On June 26, a representative of the Tajik service of Radio Ozodi was invited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country, where he was informed that Barotu Yusufi was temporarily refused accreditation, because he repeatedly mentioned the Islamic Revival Party (banned in the country) in his articles.

Joanna Levison, spokeswoman for Radio Free Europe (Свободная Европа) / Radio Liberty (Свобода), said June 28 that the Tajik authorities are using the accreditation system to punish Radio Ozodi employees for their impartial and professional publications.

On the other hand, authorities ignore critical media publications or investigative materials about corruption or abuse of power.

For example, the publication of Yakub Halimov -“Houses that were built by Beg” caused a great resonance in society. It cited a series of shocking facts about the use of the official position of a large government official who was engaged in business during working hours.

However, this publication did not cause a proper reaction among the authorities.

Media as a business: the freedom of not having a profit

On the other side, mass media organization is a business enterprise whose goal is to make commercial profit by selling interesting content. And creating such content is difficult in the face of increased self-censorship, which also influenced media experts.

Literacy and intellectual level are falling in the country; the most socially active and literate part of the population is leaving it, which also reduces the media audience. All this happens against the backdrop of a deterioration and rise in price of the Internet and cellular communications. Economic activity is decreasing in the country, the volume of the already poor advertising market is decreasing, which further exacerbates the difficulties of the media.

Another set of problems is related to the current legal situation. The Tajik law enforcement system, including the courts, does not inspire confidence in the media.

Journalists admit self-censorship

Judging by the results of the study “The state of the media and the role of social networks in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan” of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), journalists understand that the role of the media in society is declining. The Tajik media have lost their role in society as the “fourth power” and journalists are refraining from covering serious topics and are staying on the sidelines, the study said. The study was presented in November 2018, but its findings still seem relevant to me.

During in-depth interviews, respondents said that, in their opinion, journalists in Tajikistan do not play a role in solving social, economic and political problems, since the state does not respond to their publications and does not answer their questions.

“Unlike in previous years, the situation has changed. Previously, the words of a journalist could be considered decisive. In addition to the fact that the state does not respond, there are other factors, such as the lack of qualified journalists, refraining from covering serious topics,” the respondents say.

Journalists also believe that they lost their positions due to a lack of solidarity, laziness and unwillingness to defend their rights.

The main obstacles and threats to the media, according to journalists, are insufficient professional training, self-censorship, insufficient financial resources, poor professional ethics and government interference in the media. Tajik journalists also said that at present, due to “political issues,” it is better to abstain and insure.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


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