Tajikistan Blocks Websites Again, Holds Anti-Riot Simulation
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
With civil disobedience in Hong Kong making headlines, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution fresh in most dictators’ minds, Tajikistan’s longtime strongman Emomali Rakhmon might be wondering when it will be his turn to face popular unrest. That would explain a rare security exercise in Dushanbe’s main square on October 4, in which Tajik troops apparently simulated a response to a violent rally. Grainy footage published by one of the country’s few independent news outlets, Asia Plus, appears to show a posse of faux protesters facing off a water cannon as riot police drum on their shields. According to Asia-Plus the square was blocked off on the evening of October 4.
Some observers believe the Internet blockade may have been a response to calls, published on Facebook by Tajikistan’s small opposition-in-exile, for mass demonstrations on October 10. It would be logical if the police exercise were a related message from Tajikistan’s vigilant leadership, reminding citizens still haunted by the 1990s civil war that any protests will be met with force.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.