Attacks on independent media in Tajikistan have increased markedly over recent months, prompting concern about the future of the country’s few but feisty nongovernment outlets in a region notorious for its hostility toward a free press.
Tajik authorities have stepped-up efforts to obstruct the public’s access to information by blocking websites, withholding information in the public interest from journalists, harassing and publicly denouncing journalists, and launching bogus judicial proceedings with the intent of discouraging independent reporting.
“The aim of the government appears to be to block all sources of information,” said RFE/RL Tajik Service Director Sojida Djakhfarova, whose staff and Dushanbe-based operations have been particularly hard-hit.
According to Human Rights Watch, Internet service providers in Tajikistan claim the government’s communications ministry periodically orders them to block websites, among them Google, Facebook, and the Tajik Service’s website, known locally as Radio Ozodi.The ministry denies this.
Explaining why such interference has increased recently, Djakhfarova speculates that Radio Ozodi’s reporting on Islamic extremism in Tajik society has touched a nerve. It is after reports on the subject are published on Ozodi’s website and social media pages that they are then blocked.
Other sensitive topics include stories about social and economic problems, investigative reporting on how institutions have failed average citizens, and just about anything that may cast the Tajik government in an unflattering light.
“Topics like infringements on political rights, the economy, and unemployment are strictly prohibited by officials,” Djakhfarova said. “If you’re a journalist reporting on these issues, officials call you unpatriotic and accuse you of attempting to destabilize the government.”
In addition to blocking news websites, the government has attempted to tighten control over journalists themselves, intimidating them with financial pressure, threats of defamation suits, and arbitrary arrests, according to Reporters Without Borders. This harassment often includes ad-hominem attacks by pro-government media.
“On several occasions officials have approached our journalists to scold them for being unpatriotic by reporting negative information and damaging the country’s image,” said Djakhfarova. “If you don’t obey their ‘friendly’ advice, the usual punishment is loss of accreditation, but it is sometimes worse.”
Within a two week period in late April 2016, Djakhfarova says there were at least five slanderous articles published in local, pro-government media against RFE/RL journalists and Radio Ozodi. Previously, such attacks were rare.
“They write that our stories are ‘too influential’ and endanger the stability of the country, and they falsely accuse us of working for the CIA,” she said.
A referendum set for May 22, 2016 could be one reason the government is targeting independent media at this time. The referendum would authorize a change in the constitution to allow President Emomali Rahmon, who has been in office since 1994, to run for re-election indefinitely.Human Rights Watch has reported that, in the run-up to the vote, journalists, opposition activists, and anyone voicing criticism in matters of state is taking a risk; according to their research, several have disappeared.
Media freedom in Tajikistan has long been a function of presidential prerogative. For years, Freedom House has designated it as “not free,” scoring it at 83rd out of 100, with 100 being the "least free" in its 2016 Freedom of the Press report.
Access to free information is further hindered by the country’s low level of Internet penetration which, partly as a result of the country’s poverty and remote, mountainous location, is among the lowest in the world.
Despite the challenges, RFE/RL’s Tajik service confounds all expectations with audience statistics that are higher than ever. In March 2016, visits to its website totaled 1.5 million, an increase of 20 percent over the previous month. Because the website is periodically blocked, web users in the country have taken to using virtual private networks (VPNs) to privately access internet content and evade monitoring. The VPNs are especially popular on mobile phones. The service attracts another 1 million monthly views on its YouTube channel.
Notwithstanding such successes, and the demands for accurate inormation that drive them, the future of independent media in Tajikistan is uncertain.
“Anything could happen because the situation is completely unpredictable,” said Djakhfarova.