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The lawsuit against Tajik bloggers: who is a victim and who is scared?

Tajik bloggers, creators of the resonant video about sex workers in Dushanbe, say they did not think about the consequences. Now they are waiting for the trial, and experts say that its result may lead to increasing self-censorship among bloggers.

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Rustam Ashurov. Youtube screenshot of Radio Ozodi
Rustam Ashurov. Youtube screenshot of Radio Ozodi

Earlier, a video “Baron and Rustam, a raid of prostitutes on the highway” was uploaded on Youtube. It was filmed by two bloggers Rustam Ashurov and Behruz Sharif.

According to the bloggers, already over 180 thousand people watched the video during the first night. However, 17 hours after the publication, Dushanbe Department of Internal Affairs summoned the bloggers for interrogation, informing them they were charged with Article 144 of the Criminal Code of the RT.

Article 144. Illegal Collection and Dissemination of Privacy Information 1)    Illegal collection or spreading of information about the private life of a person which constitutes his personal or family secrets, without his consent, or the distribution of this information in a public speech, in a publicly performed work, or in the mass media, if these deeds have been committed out of mercenary motives or any other personal interests, and have caused harm to the rights and legally-protected interests of individuals, shall be punishable by community service for a period of 120 to 180 hours or a fine in the amount of 200 to 500 minimum wages, or by corrective labor for a term of up to one year, or by arrest for a term of up to four months.

Rustam Ashurov, one of the creators of the video report, told Cabar.asia on August 12 that for the first-time the bloggers were invited to the Dushanbe Prosecutor’s Office on August 6.

“The city Prosecutor’s office told us they initiated a lawsuit. They said that it was likely that a trial will begin within 10 days,” Ashurov said.

But, even though almost a month passed, the trial never started.

“Did not think about the consequences”

In an interview with CABAR.asia, the bloggers stated that having created the video without prior consultation with a lawyer, they did not expect they could end up in a criminal case.

Скриншот обсуждения темы в фейсбуке
Facebook discussion screenshot

In the video the bloggers Ashurov and Sharif drove through the streets of the city and filmed women who were allegedly engaged in sex work. Using technical tools the bloggers hid the faces of these women. Ashurov and Sharif picked them up in their car and asked them about prices and the services provided. After that, the bloggers offered “free money” to the women, adding that they could return home without providing anyone sexual services that night.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs called the video “immoral” and noted in a special statement that bloggers Behruz Majidiyon (Sharifi), Rustam Ashurov, Shahriyor Jalilov and Yusufjon Davlatmurod (the last two bloggers also took part in creation of the video) are accused of disseminating information about the personal lives of citizens (Article 144 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Tajikistan).

This article stipulates a fine of 10 to 25 thousand somoni (approximately from 1 to 2.5 thousand US dollars), or correctional labor up to one year, or arrest for up to four months.

“The creators of this video did not follow ethical standards, along with the fact that they revealed personalities, at the same time they damaged the honor and dignity of women and girls, which caused women and girls to appeal to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Dushanbe, asking to take legal action against the creators and distributors of this video on the Internet. The police officers of the capital city, having investigated the appeal and the complaint of women, as a result of an operational search, identified the so-called bloggers and brought them to the police station in the capital city,” the Ministry of Internal Affairs commented.

At the same time, the Ministry of Internal Affairs clarified that the creation of such resources and development of such activities, including the dissemination of information, are not prohibited.

“However, those who call themselves bloggers and want to earn money in such a way, must comply with ethical standards and work within the framework of the law. Otherwise, this will cause misunderstanding and use of legal measures against such individuals,” the Ministry of Internal Affairs emphasized.

The bloggers: “We wanted to reflect the real situation”

In an interview with CABAR.asia, Rustam Ashurov emphasized that their main goal was to prevent women from engaging in sex work and to help them, rather than to humiliate them.

“Our goal was desire to reflect the real situation. Look, many women who were engaged in prostitution did not go to work after the publication of our video,” Ashurov said.

He believes that they managed to convince women to be more cautious in their work. For example, not to get quickly into the car of a client during a conversation.

“In future, if we shoot videos again, we will definitely consult with a lawyer. I lived in Europe for 14 years, I want to change the mentality of people a little, I want to develop video blogging in Tajikistan,” Ashurov says.

According to him, they were aware they would have problems after the publication of the video, but they could not imagine it would take on such a scale.

“We even waited for a call from law enforcement. We were not hiding from responsibility, we wanted to do something new,” Ashurov claims.

According to him, bloggers did not seek to make money, they even refused the option

in Youtube that allows monetizing the video based on the number of views.

The bloggers believe that social media platforms are full of videos that disgrace women who can be easily identified. According to the bloggers, to this day no one has been held accountable.

Journalists at CABAR.asia were not able to talk with women who were engaged in sex work. When approached, they ran away and talked among themselves about the need to avoid any possible video shootings.

Only one of these women told CABAR.asia that after this video she was personally given money without providing any services. According to her, a few days ago, when they were out in the street, a car drove up to them.

“The car did not look expensive, a young guy got out, who also did not seem rich. There were five of us, the guy came up to us and gave 200 somoni to four of us, and 300 somoni to the fifth one, who was younger and prettier than us. He said: “This night you will not work, go to your children”. Honestly, we were very happy, and I think that after the video that was shot about us, others want to help us,” a sex worker said.

Discussion on social media platforms: Did the Ministry of Internal Affairs employ double standards?

In the discussion on social media, many expressed the opinion that when authorities applied double standards when filing a case. Users said that instead, one should think about solving the problems of women who are engaged in sex work and create more jobs.

One of the Facebook users, on condition of anonymity, told CABAR.asia that the efforts of bloggers deserved support to a certain extent.

 “I think that this case was deliberately initiated, perhaps someone’s business was affected. Given that almost every day on social media platforms videos are distributed where honor and dignity of women are humiliated, talking about “female infidelity”. However, no one is checking this and no one is persecuted for that,” the source said.

He suggested that the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed double standards in this matter to some extent.

“Because several times the ministry itself “leaked” videos where identifiable women or mullahs were caught in acts of obscenity,” the source said.

According to him, bloggers should be active in discussing social issues.

“Unfortunately, Tajik bloggers are only engaged in insulting and slandering each other. Sometimes to get subscription and likes they post a video that dishonors both themselves and the nation. Basically, in all countries of the world bloggers are involved in politics, however, our bloggers do not dare to engage in politics, the source told CABAR.asia.

Umarjon Emomali, the spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, did not give Cabar.Asia any comments on this case.

“The investigation will show to what extent the law was violated. We cannot say anything currently until the case is over,” the spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs said.

The lawyer: The court case is initiated when the complaint of the owner of the image is officially filed

Абдурахмон Шарипов. Фото: CABAR.asia
Abdurahmon Sharipov. Photo: CABAR.asia

Abdurahmon Sharipov, a Tajik lawyer and human rights activist, told CABAR.asia that he did not see a contradiction in the actions of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

He says, according to Article 176 of the Civil Code of the Republic of Tajikistan, everyone has the right to his/her own image. No one has the right to use the image of another person without his/her consent, and in case of his/her death, with the consent of his/her heirs.

Sharipov also admitted that the officials filmed videos about women and men involved in sexual activities.

“However, the owners of these images did not file any complaints about the distribution of these materials in the media, and therefore no dispute is possible here,” the lawyer said.

According to him, a dispute and legal consequences are possible only if the owner of the image makes a complaint to protect his/her rights to his/her own image.

“There is a chance that this case will scare other bloggers”

Social media users assume that the criminal case against Ashurov, Sharif and their collaborators can affect the activities of other bloggers. In the users’ view, it is possible that one of the goals of this criminal case was to intimidate bloggers.

Abdullo Gurbati, a young journalist believes that this is how the authorities want to limit people’s access to information, restrict freedom of speech even more and send a message to other bloggers about what they can expect in case of similar actions.

Нуриддин Каршибоев. Фото: CABAR.asia
Nuriddin Karshiboev. Photo: CABAR.asia

Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan, agrees that there are signs of freedom of speech restrictions in this case.

“In my opinion, actions of the bloggers were not motivated to humiliate women. They did their best to hide their faces. And the fact that they are not punished (presently) confirms their innocence,” Karshiboev told CABAR.asia.

Ahmad Karimzoda, a Facebook user, believes that bloggers bring benefit to civil society and the government itself in democracies.

– “Bloggers really talk about existing issues that need to be addressed. What the state should do,” Karimzoda noted.

In his opinion, the prosecution of bloggers and criminal cases against them is detrimental to the development of the blogosphere.

“Young people with strong will and determination can initiate changes in the country through blogging. At the same time, they can engage in social, cultural, human rights activities and even become political activists,” Karimzoda wrote.

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

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