Tajikistan: Defense Ministry Picking Fight with Media Outlets
As security forces in Tajikistan hunt for suspected Islamic militants in the Rasht Valley, the country’s Defense Ministry is lashing out at media outlets that have questioned the government’s crisis-management skills. Far from cowering in the face of a government attack, however, media outlets are preparing to fight back.
Telephone connections with the Rasht Valley remain severed and state-controlled media outlets are providing few details about the ongoing security sweep in the region. The dearth of verifiable information has fueled speculation about the nature of the threat: officials insist that international Islamic terrorists are behind a string of recent violent incidents. But some observers believe that former opposition elements from Tajikistan’s 1992-97 Civil War may be becoming militarily active again.
Whatever the source, fighting is continuing in the Rasht Valley, according to government reports. On October 4, at least four elite police officers were killed in Rasht’s Kamarob Gorge, scene of a September 19 militant ambush that left at least 28 Tajik soldiers dead. Some reports put this week’s death toll higher.
In an October 4 statement, Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloyev said that media criticism of the government’s response to the militant threat was tantamount to disloyalty. Critical reports help “destabilize” the country, Khairulloyev contended, adding that journalists who continue to question government tactics and strategy could face punishment. Khairulloyev’s statement was published by the state-run Khovar news agency.
The blame and recrimination started on September 25, when the Defense Ministry repeatedly aired a news conference on state television. In the broadcast, Tajik defense officials accused private media outlets of attempting to weaken the country’s leadership by criticizing the government’s response to the recent security challenges – namely, a high-profile prison break in late August in Dushanbe, followed by a suicide bomb attack in Khujand, and the ongoing military operations in Rasht.
Media rights advocates seem undaunted by the Defense Ministry’s PR offensive. In a September 27 statement, representatives of 17 media organizations, including the National Association of Independent Mass-Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), rejected the Defense Ministry’s accusations. “Military officials went far beyond their mandates,” the statement asserted. “This is an attempt upon the professional rights of journalists and a violation of the constitutional right of citizens on access to information.”
“We also consider that the Defense Ministry is trying to shift the blame on to the media, whereas the latter carry out their mission in compliance with legislation and professional ethics,” the statement added.
Starting on September 29, some media outlets – including the independent Avesta news agency, tjknews.com and centrasia.ru – experienced periodic access problems in Tajikistan after publishing stories that cast doubt on the government’s version of events. Media representatives suspect the government is taking action to block access to the websites.
NANSMIT chairman Nuriddin Karshibaev told EurasiaNet.org that the government had deployed the tax police in an apparent attempt to silence some nettlesome media outlets. Inspectors were said to be probing the finances of the private Oila printing press, where most of the country’s independent weeklies are printed. There is an “obvious” link between the recent critical coverage and authorities’ “punitive measures,” Karshibaev said.
Marat Mamadshoev, editor of the Asia Plus news agency suggested that recent events were highlighting a “struggle” within government. “There are many people who want to eliminate independent mass media and control everything,” he said. They do this to “avoid criticism.”
NANSMIT representatives say they are preparing for a fight. Both the journalists and the defense minister are demanding apologies from each other. “Non-state media have the duty to make a very clear statement about the suppression of freedom of expression,” Karshibaev said. He added that media representatives were considering filing a lawsuit against the Defense Ministry.
Lidia Isamova, a well-known Tajik journalist and media analyst said the Defense Ministry stance was bringing journalists together in an “unprecedented” show of “solidarity.”
Khurshed Atovullo, chairman of Tajikistan's Media Alliance, another media rights advocacy body, told EurasiaNet.org that at least five prominent editors had agreed on a response to the defense minister’s accusations. “They will publish their next issue with a blank page carrying the headline, ‘Upon the request of the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Tajikistan, General Khairulloyev,’ instead of telling readers about the events in Rasht,” Atovullo said.