As Tajikistan approaches the fifth anniversary of the armistice in its five-year civil war, the country's peace remains fragile. The war killed 100,000 of the country's 6.2 million people and displaced another 700,000, either internally or into other countries. 55,000 children became orphans, and many educated professionals left for Russia and other neighboring countries. With a freer media, Tajikistan might stand a sounder chance of surmounting these conditions. As it is, disputes over the role of Islam in public life continue to deny Tajiks real security.
Tajikistan is unique among Central Asia's former Soviet republics in that one of its preeminent parties, the Party of Islamic Renaissance in Tajikistan, follows an explicitly religious agenda. The party, referred to as the IRP, served as the political arm of the United Tajik Opposition during the war. However, according to the General Agreement provisions, it has shed its military bearings and become a legal political party represented in all state structures.
There are ongoing debates about the degree to which Islam as a basis for politics must imply obscurantism. On April 20 and 21, reporters and thinkers gathered in Dushanbe to consider the matter. Their conference, which the National Association of Independent Electronic Media of Tajikistan (NAIMT) co-initiated and facilitated with an international nonprofit media organization called CIMERA, sought to bring together Central Asian journalists to foster open, accurate and thoughtful reporting about the relationship between religion and democracy. Current geopolitical trends made this conference particularly urgent in Dushanbe.
Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, occupies perhaps the "hottest spot" in this conflict. Interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan provided direct and implicit support to extremist Islamic organizations, who played quite a role in the instigation of the inter-Tajik conflict. One cannot credibly accuse the media of fostering national war: since 1990, there have not been any daily printing editions in Tajikistan. Today, the country relies on small-volume weekly papers; most of them fill news holes with horoscopes and anecdotes from the Russian yellow press. According to the American NGO Internews, some 16 private and public TV companies are registered in Tajikistan. Most of them broadcast only for 2-3 hours a day, and no private TV and radio companies operate in Dushanbe. This information vacuum, at a time when Islamist extremism roils the region, threatens the Tajik peace.
In November 2001, the Tajik Ministry of Communication ceased re-broadcasting of the Russian Public Television ORT, the country's major source of news, analysis and cultural programming. Since only foreign visitors, international aid workers and a small stratum of wealthy nouveau-riches (the "new Tajiks") can afford satellite dishes, balanced news is nearly absent from much of the country. This absence does not promote stability.
Nor does it soothe independent experts. "I cannot find an explanation to the absence of private and public electronic media in Dushanbe," says Alexei Malashenko, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow office. "Tajik colleagues have always differed from their Central Asian neighbors they have always freely, without a backward glance expressed their thoughts, opinions and ideas at conferences, in local and foreign press." The State Committee on Television and Radio, which controls all media, has tightened its grip on public discourse, though. International human rights organizations report that Tajik journalists have fallen into tough self-censorship, checking and re-checking information and avoiding topical issues in order to avoid facing censorship.
This silence hurts Tajikistan's economy as well as its society. Broadcasting companies are ready to dutifully pay for using FM radio frequencies. New media structures could create plenty of jobs a meaningful prospect in a country with 30 percent official unemployment (the real figure is much higher). Income from commercials could also go to the public purse of the state, whose budget has been facing a large deficit.
But independent media methods may evoke Islamist organizing techniques too closely for the Tajik government's tastes. Hizb-ut-Tahir, which seeks to restore an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, runs educational resource centers and web sites on computer servers based in Great Britain. The group believes that the only way to change society is to change its consciousness. For Tajikistan, which has not banned explicitly religious parties from participating in politics, the notion of changing consciousness may smack of renewed civil war.
If the government fears a surge in extremism, though, it would be wiser to broaden citizens' exposure to information. Mass media in Central Asia does not have a clear strategy while covering activities of Islamic political parties, and an information vacuum from countries where these parties operate stokes distorted perceptions of Islam in general, and the Islamic parties in particular.
Events in Afghanistan and Pakistan still threaten Tajikistan: despite the anti-terrorist campaign, the flow of drugs and contraband weapons from Afghanistan has not ceased. As external factors like these work their influence, the role of Islam is shifting throughout the region. The alarming March 27 violence in Ak-Sui, Kyrgyzstan, in which police killed five protestors [for more information see the EurasiaNet Civil Society archive], call to mind the "February events" in Tajikistan in 1990. Then, the Tajik community could get no information about what caused unrest, and later came to accept the so-called "Islamic factor" as a cause of violence. There are signs that Kyrgyzstan's and Uzbekistan's presidents want to equate violence with Islam now.
Tajikistan cannot afford to stand aside while its neighbors carry out this strategy. It stands apart from the Western world, and has very few outside visitors. Access to the Internet is limited; the choice of literature and publications covering contemporary ethnic and political issues is extremely poor. The information vacuum in the country can bring about the most undesirable consequences, exerting negative influence on further social and political developments in the region.
Ten years after a strong Soviet ideology dissolved, other forces are snatching all opportunities to define a new ideology at crossroad of the European and Asian civilizations. In areas in which the free media cannot operate, and where there is a lack of education, that ideology can grow from fear and violence. The government's attitude to the press in general and the alternative electronic media in particular must change. The current isolation cannot last any longer.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe.