The repressive bent of President Emomali Rakhmon, officially described as “founder of national peace and unity, and leader of the nation”, is steadily intensifying. More and more journalists choose exile, and those who decide to stay resort to self-censorship.
Government pressure has forced many independent media to shut down, including the Ozodagon newspaper and the Akhbor site, and has driven dozens of journalists into exile. Only one-third of the population enjoys internet access. The quasi-permanent blocking of major news sites and social networks has pushed many Tajik media to establish their operations outside the country. Foreign journalists work under threat of their accreditation being cancelled, if not simply rejected.
The government closely monitors content disseminated on the radio, television and the internet, and access to official information is extremely limited for the independent media. Journalists who do not succumb to self-censorship are harassed by the secret service and are targets of intimidation and blackmail. Some are officially categorised as “terrorists”. Any reporting on the brutally suppressed protests in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), an autonomous region covering nearly half the country, is prohibited and can lead to censorship and arrest. The government has set up troll farms designed to discredit any critical commentary.
The Tajik authorities misuse legal provisions to punish incitement to hatred, discord or the dissemination of false information. These laws, which directly threaten journalists, create a climate of fear and prevent them from expressing any critical view of the regime.
Many obstacles stand in the way of economic development of the media sector. These include legal and bureaucratic barriers, heavy taxes, an under-developed advertising market, and surprise inspections by regulatory authorities. Added to these are low salaries that push experienced journalists into other careers. Private media receive no public subsidies, although a provision of the press law explicitly allows this.
Journalists have no role to play in resolving the country’s social, economic and political problems, because the government does not respond to their work nor answer their questions. Media have a hard time addressing certain issues, such as homosexual marriage, homosexuality and extra-marital affairs. After the start of a border conflict with Kyrgyzstan in 2021, attacks and insults directed at that country’s people were spread in the media and online.
Reporters who criticise the government risk physical assault, intimidation, arrest and even imprisonment by law enforcement and the secret service. Journalists find it virtually impossible to work on issues that the government considers “sensitive” without exposing themselves, or their friends and family, to danger. In 2022, four journalists received heavy sentences of up to ten years in prison.