Reporters Without Borders (RSF) hails the identification of three men who physically attacked a Tajik website reporter last week but deplores a court’s decision to fine them for nothing more than “misconduct” instead of trying them for “obstruction of a journalist’s professional activities.”
At a trial held on 2 June, a Khuroson district court imposed fines of around 50 euros on each of the three men, who pleaded guilty to the administrative charge of misconduct for attacking Avazmad Gurbatov. A reporter for the Asia-Plus independent online newspaper, Gurbatov is better known by the pen-name of Abdullo Gurbati.
The assault took place on 29 May when Gurbati went to cover a mudslide in Khatlon province, south of the capital, Dushanbe. He said the three men accosted him in a car as soon as he arrived, before he had time to begin interviewing victims of the catastrophe. Using crude language, they told him to stop provoking them, and then they attacked him physically.
“Hitting a journalist and preventing him from working is a crime under article 162 of the criminal code, so we support Abdullo Gurbati’s lawyer, who wants to appeal against this ridiculous conviction,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“The sentences will contribute to a climate of impunity that encourages journalists to censor themselves, although the freedom to inform is theoretically guaranteed by the Tajik constitution and international treaties. We call on the competent authorities to retry this attack as an ‘obstruction of a journalist’s professional activities’.”
Gurbati was subjected to a government smear campaign before the trial. In a statement published on 30 May, the interior minister accused him of “provoking the resentment of residents” and “provoking a conflict” by entering their homes uninvited and meddling in their private lives.
This was the second physical attack on the 23-year-old reporter in the space of three weeks. He was beaten by masked men in Dushanbe on 11 May after being threatened in phone calls and on social media. In recent months he has been covering Tajikistan’s coronavirus outbreak, the existence of which was denied by the authorities until 30 April.
Other journalists working for independent media outlets, such as Rajabi Mirzo and Daler Sharipov, have been attacked by unidentified assailants in the past 20 years.
Ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Tajikistan has fallen 45 places since 2015, above all because of massive online censorship and harassment of the few independent journalists who are still trying to work.