Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is stepping up cooperation with the National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT) with the aim of providing journalists with more support following recent developments that do not bode well for freedom of information in Tajikistan.
As freedom of the press and the situation of independent media continue to decline in this Central Asian country, RSF and NANSMIT have decided to reinforce a partnership focused on protecting freedom of information. To this end, they have signed an agreement that will enable them to provide more effective coverage of violations of the right to inform and be informed.
President Emomali Rahmon signed a law on 2 November under which criminal proceedings can be brought against anyone “insulting or defaming the Initiator of Peace and National Unity and Leader of the Nation” – the title that has recently been awarded to Emomali Rahmon, placing him about all other citizens. This new crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.
At the same time, two of Tajikistan’s last independent media outlets have suddenly closed since the start of November.
The first was Nigokh, a weekly covering social and political trends in Tajikistan that had established itself as an alternative source of information about domestic developments in its ten years of existence. The pressure that led to its closure was prompted by a misprint in the word “president” and showed the extremes to which the regime is ready to go in implementing the new law.
The second was the news agency Tojnews, which shut down two weeks later without giving any official reason. However, RSF has registered several cases of threats, harassment, and intimidation, especially judicial intimidation, against independent journalists in recent months.
The authorities meanwhile inaugurated a “Single Communications Switching Centre” on 11 November that centralizes all telephone and Internet communications with the aim of facilitating surveillance on the grounds of combatting terrorism and extremism. It allows the government to have complete control over domestic communications without any safeguards.
The foreign ministry also rescinded the accreditations of six journalists with the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on 25 November. The ministry declined to explain this decision publicly but told RFE/RL by telephone that it was prompted by the broadcaster’s refusal to withdraw an article from its website about the appointment of the president’s daughter, Rukhshona Rakhmonova, to a senior position within the ministry.
“We are alarmed by the constant decline in the situation in Tajikistan for nearly two years and by the speed of this deterioration, and we fear that this country could become a new area in Central Asia where journalists have no rights,” RSF programme director Lucie Morillon said.
“We believe President Rahmon’s policies pose a great danger to peace and national stability. The government is trying to gain complete control over media coverage as the social and economic situation keeps on worsening. For all these reasons, we have decided to work more closely with our long-standing partner, NANSMIT.”
Recent curbs on freedom of information include a decree in August reinforcing government censorship of “the entire sphere of news coverage” by TV and radio, with aims that include “enhancing Tajikistan’s media image in the world arena” and protecting the country from “media attacks.”
The decree defined TV and radio broadcasting as “ideological propaganda tools” that are used to wage “information wars” and “verbal struggles,” and to deal “psychological strikes.”
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.