Security-related incidents and reporting on alleged tax breaks for businesspeople within Tajikistan’s ruling family appear to have triggered a fresh wave of internet censorship.
Some websites, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, have been sporadically inaccessible for months, even years. Total blocks on other websites, such independent newspaper Asia-Plus, are more recent.
The worst situation of all is in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, which was cut off from the internet altogether as of November 9. The mountainous region is currently the focus of an intense security sweep and has seen at least one show of mass discontent by local residents.
The Asia-Plus website became inaccessible after publishing an article about a line in the state budget for 2019 that exempted a five-star hotel purportedly under construction from paying value-added tax and custom duties.
In its piece, the newspaper noted that the hotel, Ismoili Somoni, has on paper been under construction since 2006. Ismoili Somoni is being built on orders from the presidential administration by a company called Ismoili Somoni-21st Century. According to Asia-Plus’ original report, this construction company is jointly owned by President Emomali Rahmon’s brother-in-law, Rahmatullo Sadulloyev, and his brother, Hasan Asadullozoda. (The brothers go by varying versions of their surname).
But it does not end there. Ismoili Somoni-21st Century is the only company in Tajikistan authorized to import construction materials, in effect granting it a monopoly. The implication of the Asia-Plus article was that the Ismoili Somoni hotel is not being built at all, and that the construction materials being imported duty free are actually sold on to other construction companies at a handsome profit.
Eurasianet has learned that Asia-Plus amended its article on Ismoili Somoni hotel to excise references to members of the ruling family, but this effort at self-censorship arrived too late. The block has been in force since November 3.
The Ismoili Somoni hotel revelation was picked up by other news websites covering Central Asia, such as Moscow-based Ferghana. This publication also dwelled on the fact that in August, parliament requested the government exempt the Safed-Dara ski resort, which is owned by Rahmon’s son-in-law, Shamsullo Sohibov, from paying taxes.
This might have got Ferghana blocked, but for the fact that the website has already been blocked for years, along with outlets like Prague-based Akhbor and Payom, a news website run by the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT.
The state communications agency has sweeping powers to block access to all manner of online services. At the start of 2018, Tojiktelekom, a telephone and internet services provider owned by the communications regulator, became the sole entity in Tajikistan permitted to import internet traffic. Other privately owned companies are now obliged to buy data from Tojiktelekom, whose monopoly status gives it unlimited control over the data spigot.
Sensitivity about public access to information has become even more acute because of at least two other developments.
Tensions are festering in GBAO, where the local population has begun to more openly register its objections to the many police checkpoints that have sprung up in the regional capital, Khorog, in recent weeks. On November 6, a large crowd of residents assembled in a protest rally in front of the town hall — a rare instance of collective defiance.
Shortly thereafter, internet connections to GBAO were cut off, which has severely complicated the process of getting news out of the region.
Elsewhere, in the northern city of Khujand, a prison riot has reportedly claimed at least two dozen lives. According to the sparse reporting that has been devoted to this incident, it appears that late on November 7, an unspecified number of inmates overpowered guards in an attempt to take over the prison. It seems that special forces were then dispatched to quell the uprising, culminating in the mass bloodshed.
According to reporting by RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, prison colony No. 3/3 is designed to hold up to 750 inmates, but that 800 people have been serving their sentence at the facility. A few outlets have suggested that the prison was a facility mainly dedicated for housing individuals convicted on charges of belonging to religious extremist groups.
Amaq, the news agency for the Islamic State group, claimed on November 8 that one of its militants was responsible for sparking the unrest at the prison. Anonymous Tajik officials likewise told Ozodi that they suspected the Islamic State of being behind the incident.
The claims could not be verified, however, and the authorities have been highly circumspect over the entire episode.
It is uncertain whether the new restrictions on access to social media websites is linked to either the situation in GBAO or in Khujand, but experience indicates that measures to limit the flow of information in Tajikistan typically coincide with outbreaks of unrest.