Tajikistan: Free Press a Casualty amid Dushanbe’s Security Sweep
Officials in Tajikistan have proclaimed a security sweep against alleged Islamic militants in the Rasht Valley to be a success. But authorities at the same time show no signs of relenting in a drive to curtail the ability of independent journalists to gather and disseminate information.
Since September 19, when insurgents ambushed government troops in Rasht, leaving 28 dead, government pressure on independent media has steadily intensified. And concurrent with attempts to stifle alternative narratives, officials have pressed ahead with an information campaign, broadcasting calm – possibly archival – scenes of the valley on state television. It is currently impossible to confirm or dispute official statements about the security situation in the Rasht Valley, as authorities have severed phone lines to the region and blocked journalists’ access to the region. Moreover, five prominent websites have been unavailable since September 29. The government says the lack of service is due to a “technical problem.”
Foreign diplomatic missions in Dushanbe aren’t buying the government’s explanation, however. Describing a “deteriorating climate for independent media in Tajikistan,” an October 29 joint statement issued by western diplomats, including US Ambassador Kenneth Gross, disputed the existence of technical problems. “On September 29, Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications Bek Zuhurov ordered all major Internet service providers to block access to five independent media websites, Tojnews.tj, Avesta.tj, Tjknews.com, Centrasia.ru, and Ferghana.ru,” the statement asserted.
The American delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on November 4, that “in mid-October, the Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications sent a letter to several Internet service providers ordering them to block four of these websites in order to ‘protect the information security of the nation.’”
“We take strong exception to the October 4 statement by the Minister of Defense, General Sherali Khairulloev, that journalists who reported on the government’s response to the security situation in the Rasht Valley were providing cover for terrorists and committing a serious crime,” the declaration continued.
Officials are said to also be meddling in the operations of print media outlets, with officials stopping publishers from printing three leading newspapers. “The problem in Tajikistan is not with the journalists themselves, but with the lack of independent printing houses. The existing printers can come under government pressure,” Zebo Tadjibaeva, executive director of the Asia-Plus news agency, told EurasiaNet.org.
For example, the Oila Print plant was subject to tax inspections in early October and subsequently refused to print a paper rumored to have upset officials. Tadjibaeva said the best thing the international community could do to support a free press in Tajikistan would be setting up an independent printing house, as the United States did in Kyrgyzstan several years ago.
Meanwhile, the government is presenting a rosy picture of events in Rasht. On November 9, Saymumin Yatimov, the head of Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security, speaking at a meeting of CIS security officials, declared the operation a “success.”
Officially, the government has been battling Islamists led by an elusive former opposition commander, Mullo Abdullo. Observers, however, have cast doubts on the official version of recent events. John Heathershaw, an expert on Tajikistan at the University of Exeter told EurasiaNet.org that by framing the struggle in Rasht as part of the War on Terror “there’s more chance that foreign governments will get behind them. The government has ensured an information blackout to prevent journalists from getting up there, but we know […] that this is a local insurgency about control of this particular region.”
Heathershaw said that though the government regularly attempts to stem the flow of information, this latest campaign has been more comprehensive. Concurring, a local journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “this is the worst time to be an independent journalist in Tajikistan since independence.”
Some commentators suspect that officials are using recent events as a pretext to squelch all analytical reporting of government policies and conduct. Prior to the outbreak of violence in the Rasht Valley, some local media outlets had begun to examine issues that potentially could cast the government in an unfavorable light. For example, several outlets had questioned government accounts of a mass prison break in August in which 25 suspected Islamists mysteriously walked out of a maximum-security prison in central Dushanbe.
In addition, an October 28 article in the Najot newspaper, affiliated with the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), noted that the press had also engaged in a lively debate over the ownership of a mysterious new company charging tolls on a road north of Dushanbe. Others had discussed a lack of transparency at the Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO), wondering how much money the plant was bringing into the national economy while it ate most of the country’s limited energy supply.
On October 20, at the height of the media controversy, Reporters Without Borders described Tajikistan as the freest media environment in Central Asia, placing it at 115 out of 179 worldwide in its annual Press Freedom Index. Independent journalists in Dushanbe derided the finding, with 240 signing a petition urging President Imomali Rahmon to stop the crackdown.
Many journalists believe that Western criticism of the Tajik government’s crackdown on a free press will have little influence in altering Dushanbe’s course. The West may criticize, but the United States and European Union still place security concerns first, and will thus keep the pressure appropriately tempered. “Because so much of the censorship is informal, the government can carry on getting away with leveraging the media, whilst the international community does nothing to stop them,” said Tadjibaeva of Asia-Plus.