The main independent websites such as Asia-Plus, Radio Ozodi and Ozodagon were blocked on 11 May after posting articles about the referendum. This practice has become habitual in recent years in the run-up to major events such as this referendum.
The most controversial constitutional amendments would scrap the limit on the number of presidential terms, restrict the activities of opposition parties and lower the minimum age for being a presidential candidate. The goal is to allow President Emomali Rakhmon to stay in power for as long as possible and then hand over to his son.
On 14 May, Asia-Plus published a letter it received from the culture ministry describing some of its articles as “terrorist propaganda.” The cited articles mentioned the Financial Times’ revelations about the wages paid to Islamic State fighters, the government’s response to radicalization in Central Asia and the crackdown on the Islamist opposition in Tajikistan.
As none of the articles contained anything that could be seen as a defence of terrorist activity, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) regards this warning as an attempt to use combatting terrorism as a pretext for intimidating independent media and encouraging self-censorship.
Independent journalists meanwhile continue to report to RSF that they are being the targets of threats and blackmail attempts by the intelligence services.
“Depriving the population of freely reported news and information before such a crucial political event constitutes an all-out denial of democracy,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“If the authorities are really trying to combat terrorism, they should treat media pluralism as an ally, as a vehicle for dialogue and for defusing tension. We urge them to lift the blocking of news websites and to stop harassing independent journalists.”
Tajikistan is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index after falling 33 places. This was the biggest fall of any country in this year’s index. Harassment of journalists and website blocking have increased since the 2015 parliamentary election and the banning of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the main opposition party.
The decline in the human rights situation was highlighted during Tajikistan’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council at the start of May. RSF urges the international community to step up the pressure on Dushanbe to end its increasingly repressive practices.