Tajikistan’s General Prosecutor is considering prosecution for a Russian journalist for “inciting ethnic hatred” over an article that mocked the country and its president.
Sergei Ponomaryov’s piece in Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda about a visit to Tajikistan was published last month and featured numerous crude stereotypes. The article has already led to the shuttering of the local edition of the newspaper, which had a circulation of 5,000 in Tajikistan.
Likely most troubling for authorities in Dushanbe, however, was the fact that the article reveled among other things in ribald observations about President Emomali Rahmon. A concerted exercise in personality cult building has made Rahmon, who is alluded to exclusively in state media as the “Leader of the Nation,” off-limits to any critics.
Asia-Plus website cites General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon as saying Ponomaryov’s article, which was sarcastically titled “Tajikistan: Out of the Soviet Waste to a Bright Future,” will be studied for evidence of incitement to interethnic hatred.
The piece was certainly patronizing and insulting. Ponomaryov bases some of his caustic observations on a pair of Tajik characters from a popular Russian sketch show, Nasha Russia.
“On the plane from Moscow to the ancient city of Khujand, the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second city in the country, mine was the only Slavic countenance. The rest was straight-up Ravshan and Jamshuds,” he wrote.
The Nasha Russia characters are a pair of Tajik migrant laborers distinctive for their primitiveness and stupidity.
Komsomolskaya Pravda chief editor Vladimir Sungorkin dismissed the Tajik prosecutor’s plans to prosecute.
“The accusations from Tajikistan are utterly without foundation. Any reader can easily confirm that by going to the newspaper’s website, where you can find Ponomaryov’s report,” Sungorkin said.
Perusing the article makes it clear the irritation stems from its lack of respect for Rahmon. One section alights on the president’s home town of Dangara, whose status has been exalted for its associations with Rahmon.
“Dangara today is the like the city of Gori in Georgia [NB Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s birthplace], where the first cries of the best friend of Soviet children and athletes were heard. It is like Saint Petersburg, where you-know-who was born. Oh but no, let us reach higher, it is like the tiny village of Mangyongdae in North Korea, where the poor, modest and proud peasant Kang Pan-sok brought forth to the light the generalissimo, the supreme leader, comrade Kim Il-sung,” Ponomaryov wrote.
The concern is that a case against Ponomaryov could serve as a testbed for similar prosecutions against any foreign reporters daring to speak insolently about Tajikistan or, to be more exact, its leadership.
Local journalists have by and large been cowed in compliance. It is commonplace for government officials to informally warn the few independent outlets that still exist against reporting insolently about the president and his family, highlight any shortcomings of the plans to build the Roghun hydroelectric dam or even refer to the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Despite the reliance on Soviet-style repression of free expression, the government remarkably still reserves the right to hail its own respect for the freedom of the press. A editorial published in April by the head of state news agency Khovar, Saidali Siddik, hailed his country’s position in Reporters Without Borders’ latest press freedom index.
“Lately, Tajikistan stably occupies a not-bad position compared to other countries in the region and has improved its indicators by several points,” Siddik said.
When it comes to lying, the rule in Tajikistan is “go big or go bust,” and Siddik has lived up to that standard, as quick scrutiny of the press freedom index demonstrates.
Still, Siddik’s broader point was that the wave of political instability among dictatorships (not his term) made it important to put constraints on the media.
“Color revolutions first emerged in the information sphere and they foreshadowed political developments,” Siddik’s wrote.
Accordingly, media should avoid publishing material that could “have a negative influence on the country’s image on the international scene, engender pessimism among the people, cause its spirit to sag and sow unrest in society,” he argued.
Tajikistan is burdened by economic malaise, joblessness, corruption, maladministration, food insecurity, electricity deficits caused in part by the excess allocation of power to industrial plants that many suspect serve only to enrich the president’s family, a raft of looming environmental catastrophes and crumbling infrastructure, just to mention a few issues. That notwithstanding, always shoot the messenger. Always.