“Independent media is increasingly in need of state support in the form of tax breaks and guarantees of protection, but the state continues to simply ignore the condition of the media,” – Political scientist Khursand Khurramov sheds light on the problems facing independent media in Tajikistan in this cabar.asia exclusive.
Communication or the sharing of information between people and stakeholders in society plays a massive role in modern society. It shapes knowledge and forms skills that allow for the development of individuals, social groups, and society writ large.
Significant responsibility is placed on the media, which fulfills important functions such as providing timely information, the socialization of individuals, mobilizing public opinion, as well as providing a feedback mechanism between the populace and its government.
If a modern state is interested in the development of the individual citizen and society as a whole then it must also be interested in the free flow of information.
However, within the Tajik context, this classical has had a tendency of diverging from reality theory over the past few years. This theory is supported by the marked decline in the journalist community, which is manifested by self-censorship, a refusal to publish reports on particularly important political and socio-economic themes, and the state-media’s monopoly on information. This difficulty naturally leads to financial and economic difficulties, but they are not the key factors undermining the work of journalists under conditions of formal and informal legal pressure.
After real political opposition was eliminated, it became obvious that independent Tajik media felt themselves to be the last true rival to the powers-that-be, and this has led to their increased passivity.
An Adverse Period
The past few months have been a particularly difficult period for Tajik media after the press agency TojNews and the weekly Nigox were shuttered. “The absence of journalistic freedom and conditions necessary for the operation of an independent media operation in the country” were listed as the official reasons for the closure of TojNews.
In November of this year, the national government introduced amendments to the Criminal Code that called for a criminal penalty in the form of a $2,500 fine or up to 5-years in prison for insulting and slandering the Leader of the Nation. According to this new law, citizens are responsible for certain activities including the use of the internet and mass media.
Moreover, early that month 6 employees from RFE/RL’s Tajik service had their accreditation revoked. The publication’s management considers this decision on the part of the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) as a reaction to RFE/RL’s reporting on the appointment of Emomali Rahmon’s daughter, Rukhshoni Rahmanova, to the post of Deputy Head of the Tajik Foreign Ministry’s Department for International Organizations. For its part, the Tajik Foreign Ministry has not commented on its decision.
These sanctions were also levied earlier against other Tajik journalists that had maintained relative independence in their reporting of events. However, if a few years ago these actions led to a certain uproar in society, then now any sympathy and solidarity is taking on a more private character.
It is easy to follow this tendency after looking at the reports coming from the largest national media outlets over the course of the past 6 months where there is for all intents and purposes a complete absence of any critical and analytical material.
Additionally, Tajik journalists in both private conversations and on social networks are complaining more and more about representatives of various ministries and agencies decline to respond to questions. Journalists are instead told to address their questions to the Khovar state media agency, which now has the exclusive privilege to play the role of mediator between independent media and state institutions.
This approach naturally undermines the principle of providing society with timely information in which independent media is the leading competition in the course of undertaking its primary role.
Divergence in the Evaluations
The conditions of the media environment cannot but be a cause of deep concern. National media representatives and foreign journalists have on more than one occasion attempted to convey to the authorities the true nature of this course of events and its impact on the country’s political image. Leading international organizations such as the United Nations, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House have also repeatedly expressed their grave concerns. However, the situation has not in practice changed in anyway. Avoiding the political implications of this trend, pro-government journalists through state-media in their own publications explain this trend by blaming a difficult financial and economic environment and a lack of public interest in independent, domestic journalism. An article pushing these very conclusions recently appeared on the site of the aforementioned “Khovar” media agency. The author was able to twist the concept and create a negative image of independent media by accusing them of pushing the politics and agenda of certain “foreign powers” and undermining national security. These accusations were presented as justification for limiting the activities of independent journalists.
These differing views on what should be considered as fundamental to national security are rarely in agreement. As a rule, the image of specific civil servants and their family members are protected under the guise of national security.
These divergent evaluations and the justification of the current state of affairs in state-run media indicate that only a small circle of people in power have a clear understanding of the conditions of the national media environment and there will likely be no change in this situation any time soon.
Survey of Media Executives
According to the research conducted in September 2016 by Media Consulting, a Tajik organization, privately owned mass media in Tajikistan is on the verge of disappearing.
The research was conducted for the OSCE Office in Tajikistan and took the form of a survey of 60 Tajik media executives.
During the course of the research, it was discovered that the privately owned media saw a roughly 50% decrease in earnings and 30% decrease in circulation between 2014 and 2015. Meanwhile the operating costs of print media increased by roughly 30%.
The research also showed that these financial difficulties have forced management to resort to significant staff cuts. According to the respondents, the situation could be solved in part by tax breaks for a period of at least three years. Some respondents complained that the VAT in Tajikistan is 18% while being only 10% in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The survey results show that a majority of media executives spoke of poor prospects for the development of their industry.
On the whole, according to the data from the National Association for Tajik Independent Media’s monitoring with reference to the Ministry of Culture, there are 515 registered media outlets (newspapers, magazines, information agencies). 125 of the 330 newspapers in Tajikistan are state-owned while 205 are independent. There are 174 magazines (82 state-owned and 92 privately-owned). Of the 11 information agencies, only one is state-run. If you look at the raw numbers without consideration for quality, then the situation seems satisfactory, however less than 10 outlets in practice enjoy widespread popularity and publish quality materials.
The state language, Tajik, remains the dominant language in Tajik mass media.
Supporting the media and ensuring the free access to information is called for in both the Tajik Constitution and the Tajik Information Security Concept that considers mass media as one of the primary pillars of information security. Guarantees of media freedom and a ban on censorship are two of the measures set forth to meet the Concept’s goals.
Moreover, in the 2008 Tajik State Information Policy Concept as approved by the President, one of the mechanisms for realizing this concept is “the necessity of improved legislation regarding the guarantees for the freedom of expression and information, the free flow of media, prevention of violence and intolerance propaganda through the media, ensuring pluralism in the media, and access to official information on the basic principles of information policy orientation of the media.”
Nevertheless, practice has shown that the situation has begun to move in a less than favorable direction over the course of the past ten years. For both objective and subjective reasons, privately owned media is falling victim to the economic crisis and the political ambitions of certain groups.
According to Freedom House’ annual report on media freedom, in 2015 Tajikistan was rated 179th out of 199 countries. The organization reaches its conclusions on the state of media freedom based on criteria such as freedom of speech, level of state control of the media, working conditions of journalists in the country, incidents of violence directed against journalists, and the economic and political situation in the country among others.
Based on these criteria, 63 countries, containing only 14% of the planet’s population, were considered free in 2015.
The leaders in the ratings were countries like Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Andorra, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea came in last place in the list.
For the purposes of a practical comparison it is enough to simply look at the countries that are the highest and the lowest in the ratings, as well as the state of individual development and the standard of living of the average citizen in these states.
Of course, it would be naive to feel that a truly free media would result in a fast progress and the development of the country as a whole, but freedom of the press nevertheless creates a general atmosphere of responsibility around the government. By influencing individual components of the country’s system of governance, the media acts as a catalyst by forcing the state to work in the interest of its citizens.
Voluntary citizen associations form on the basis of shared views, positions, and worldviews only under conditions of freedom of the press, and this subsequently leads to the emergence of a strong civil society with the ability to not only control the government but also assist in fulfilling the government’s stated goals.
In the worst case, the state loses the ability to receive feedback from society. It loses touch with reality, which leads to the complete degradation in governance and governmental stagnation.
Freedom of the press is one of the most important guarantees for information security, because it provides a citizen with complete, objective, and trustworthy information and protects social and individual consciousness from propaganda and other forms of manipulation. Moreover, it stimulates the accumulation, renewal and transfer of information within society. For this reason, information security must be considered as being a bridge between national security policy and a policy of developing the information infrastructure of a free society.
The media must approach its profession with an understanding of its social responsibility by ensuring that the information it provides is accurate and balanced.
A modern state that evinces democratic norms in its approach to governance must create equal conditions for both state-run and independent media. In turn, the media is free to criticize the government, point out its flaws and shortcomings, and inform the public of the activities of the state and individual public officials to ensure the government reaches the correct political decisions that benefit society.
Officially these principles are recognized in Tajikistan. They are enshrined in the constitution, and there are laws regulating the media, state Concepts for Information Security and State Information Policy, but the current state of the media leads to the impression of these documents being only declarative in nature. Independent media is increasingly in need of state support in the form of tax breaks and guarantees of protection, but the state continues to simply ignore the condition of the media.
The Tajik Government must pay attention to this trend, particularly because all of the government’s rhetoric and official policy is supposedly aimed at building a developed progressive state. However this is simply impossible to accomplish without educating a citizen to be free, thinking, and developed individual, which is possible under conditions including freedom of the press.
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 “Freedom of the media: the concept, scope, responsibility (Свобода массовой информации: Пределы ответственности).” Yuridicheskie nauki. http://lib.sale/informatsionnoe-pravo-rosii/svoboda-massovoy-informatsii-ponyatie-predelyi.html
Author: Khursand Khurramov, independent political scientist (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)
The position of the author does not necessarily reflect the position of the cabar.asia