Tajikistan government steps up persecution of journalists

Update: October 4, 2022 Abdullo Gurbati was sentenced to 7 years and a half in prison. He was found guilty of publicly insulting a government official, using violence against a police officer, and participating in extremist activities. October 17, 2022 Daler Imomali was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was found guilty of illegal entrepreneurship, deliberate dissemination of false information, and membership within the banned "Group 24" opposition movement, which was officially designated in the country as a terrorist organisation in 2014. November 4, Zavkibek Saidamini was sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was found guilty of being a member of the banned "Group 24" opposition movement and of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, designated in the country as a terrorist organisation in 2015. 

Four independent journalists who have been critical of the government are currently being held in Tajikistan on spurious charges of links with extremist organisations. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for their release and condemns the use of such methods to intimidate the media.

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“As a result of the increase in censorship and defamatory practices towards the media, journalists risks imprisonment after every investigative story,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The Tajik authorities must stop using spurious accusations to silence reporters critical of the government, and must release those they have detained.”

Avazmad Gurbatov, a correspondent for the independent Asia-Plus news agency, and Daler Imomali, a freelance investigative reporter, have been held for more than six weeks. Two journalists who used to work with them, Zavkibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmukhamadzoda, were arrested earlier this month after publicly supporting them.

Gurbatov – who is better known by the pseudonym of Abdullo Gurbati – and Imomali were arrested on 15 June after investigating the arbitrary demolition of homes in the capital, Dushanbe, which had been ordered by the government. Gurbati was charged with “violence against a representative of the authorities” while Imomali – who often covers social unrest and local level tension between residents and officials – was accused of “illegal business activities” with his YouTube channel and "false denunciation.”

A few days before his arrest, Imomali had been interrogated for five hours by the local police, who beat him and forced him to take down the demolition story videos from his YouTube channel (on which he has 149,000 followers). 

After their arrest on 15 June, district chief Bilol Ibrohim said their video reporting had interfered with the work of the authorities, who had not been told they were filming. RSF meanwhile called for their release.

After a long silence about the grounds for Gurbati’s detention, the authorities finally announced on 19 July that he was accused of membership of an extremist group and collaborating with it – charges punishable by up to eight years in prison. The same charges – along with others – had been brought against Imomali a few weeks earlier, but the case was classified as confidential, blocking the release of information about his detention.

Held incommunicado

The strategy employed by the authorities with Gurbati and Imomali is often used by the Tajik authorities to silence journalists. The journalists are initially arrested on relatively “minor” charges but, before they can be released, much more serious charges are announced.

Saidamini was arrested in Dushanbe on 8 July and was then taken to the interior ministry’s Department for Combatting Organised Crime (DCOC) in Vahdat, a city 20 km east of the capital. On being summoned for questioning on 9 July, Pirmukhamadzoda was placed in detention for 10 days for “disobeying the police” and has been held incommunicado ever since. His family learned from media reports on 15 July that he is now accused of “publicly calling for extremist activities,” for which he faces up to five years in prison.

Long intimidation campaign

Since 2015, President Emomali Rakhmon has imposed a climate of terror that facilitates the harassment of journalists and encourages them to censor themselves. Journalists are only able to express themselves freely on online platforms such as YouTube but do so at risk of being persecuted.

Journalists are also exposed to targeted violence. Gurbati was physically attacked in 2020 without any reaction from the Tajik police. His three attackers were eventually identified thanks to an international campaign in which RSF participated, but they were just given a fine of around 50 euros each.

A harsher government crackdown on independent journalism has been under way ever since 2021, when official censorship was imposed on TV channels and radio stations.

“The authorities are trying to establish total control over public opinion in the country,” says Nuriddin Karshiboyev, the head of the National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), an RSF partner. “But there is no guarantee that the authorities will benefit from doing this. These actions will result in a negative reaction from the international community and will ultimately have a very bad effect on Tajikistan’s image.”

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