Paris, Dushanbe, 7 August 2012
Dear Mr. Zuhurov,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that campaigns for freedom of information, and its partner organization the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), wish to inform you of their profound concern at the announcement by the Tajik government communications service that a group of observers will be formed to monitor online publications and websites for insulting or libellous content.
Last month, you told journalists about your plans to create a “citizens’ organization” in the near future to control the content of websites.
A group of volunteers, composed of highly-qualified IT experts from the main Internet service providers, will be registered with the justice ministry and will be responsible for identifying any libellous content.
We are concerned that such a system of control could lead to the wholesale blocking of online publications and websites. While we agree defamation should be penalised, it should be dealt with by the courts, where defendants can put their case and have the right of appeal.
We note that in recent years, the government’s communications service has regularly targeted the websites of leading independent news organizations, which has led not only to access being denied to content deemed to be defamatory, but also to entire sites being blocked for weeks at a time.
In March this year, local Internet service providers were ordered to block access to several news sites, including Centrasia.ru and the Russian news agency sites Ria Novosti and Lenta.ru.
More recently, the leading independent news website Asia Plus was blocked for the third time in two months after it published articles about a conflict between government forces and rebels in the Gorno-Badakhshan region. When asked for a reason, your service cited technical problems or links to allegedly pornographic or extremist content.
The lack of a clear definition of “insult” or “libel” arouses fears of abuse resulting from varying interpretations. We fear that access to the websites of the leading independent news organizations could be blocked again or closed down for publishing articles on important political figures or for opening public debate on sensitivies issues. This would seriously hamper the right of the Tajik people to access information about matters of public interest.
We should like to remind you of the conclusions of the United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, who expressed concern in his report in June 2011 at the propensity of some states “to increase their power to monitor Internet users’ activities and content of communication without providing sufficient guarantees against abuse”.
Finally, we are seeking clarfication on a number of important points:
• How will the volunteers monitor the websites?
• Who will decide whether an item is insulting or libellous, and what criteria will be applied?
• Once content is deemed insulting or libellous, what steps will be taken to remove it? How will the authors and host be informed and what action will they face if it is not removed promptly?
• What safeguards will be put into place to prevent abuses for failure to comply with an order to delete content?
In our view, putting all websites under surveillance could be dangerous and counter-productive. Reporters Without Borders urges you to reconsider this plan, which would constitute a breach of freedom of information.
Secretary-General, Reporters Without Borders
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