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Limited Range of Motion

Tajik journalists have learned how to tread on forbidden ground, but not step over the line. by Konstantin Parshin 23 June 2004 DUSHANBE, Tajikistan—“You can criticize the government until your voice gets hoarse,” says one well-known Tajik economist. “But perish the thought of mentioning any names.” He received a grant from one international organization to publish a series of stories about corruption in a local newspaper. After the second story left the printer, he decided to return the grant money, saying that he couldn’t put his family in danger and preferred to quit his investigation.

To hear international officials speak or read the reports of press watchdogs, Tajikistan is a bastion of free speech compared with other Central Asian countries. Yet the economist’s view is a common one. Criticism of the authorities runs only skin-deep, as the media—haunted by the many deaths in the profession since 1991 and intimidated by the current political climate—never publicly make the connections or air the scandals that reporters know exist. The information vacuum thus persists.

Part of the problem is the limited number of media outlets in Tajikistan, even if those numbers have increased in recent years. State television, based in Dushanbe, broadcasts two or three hours in the morning and then resumes its work at 6 p.m. The news is usually stale, while other programming is filled with folk music, mediocre documentaries, and pirated movies (very often from videocassettes). The same poor quality can be found at state radio. And until last year, the country did not even have private FM radio stations. Only after the personal intervention of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov, obviously influenced by international pressure to diversify the media, did the State TV and Radio Committee grant broadcasting licenses to three radio companies in the capital.

Daily newspapers ceased to exist in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union and at the beginning of the civil war. That conflict officially ended in 1997, when, under UN auspices, the secular government signed a formal peace treaty with the Islamist United Tajik Opposition; about 100,000 people had been killed and 700,000 had become refugees. But clashes continued until 2001.

Even today, the country has very few publications for its size. Most are weeklies printed in Dushanbe, the urban conglomerate that is home to more than 1 million residents (the country’s population is 6.25 million, though, according to the International Organization for Migration, more than a million are labor migrants working in Russia). In March, outlining a “print-media expansion strategy,” Rakhmonov called for tax breaks for newspapers, including an exclusion from paying the 20 percent value-added tax. But soon after the president’s speech, the State Revenues and Duties Committee expressed its reluctance to implement the president’s directive, saying it should wait until the introduction of a new tax code next year.

UNSOLVED MURDERS

In addition to destroying Tajikistan’s infrastructure and plunging much of the population into poverty—not the best climate for a rebirth of the media—the civil war claimed the lives of 79 journalists who died in the line of duty, according to the Tajik Memorial Media Foundation. That has left a lasting imprint on the psyches of those who remain in the profession. All that violence and the grievous loss have led to self-censorship among media professionals and an inhibition against risk-taking.

Those tendencies have been exacerbated by the inability (or unwillingness) of the authorities to solve the murders of journalists during the war and in its aftermath--despite the insistence of international and local watchdogs. Among the most prominent killed were Muhiddin Olimpur, head of the BBC Persian Service's office in Dushanbe; the Russian TV journalist Viktor Nikulin; and Otakhon Latifi, a journalist and an official with the National Reconciliation Commission. In early May this year, the Tajik weekly Asia Plus published an article about Saif Rakhimov, the late chairman of the State TV and Radio Committee who was murdered four years ago. Rakhimov’s assassins have never been found, and this case (along with dozens of others involving media people) has hit a dead end. The special unit dedicated to investigating the killings of journalists during the years of conflict has also uncovered little. So far the prosecutor general’s office has pursued only 15 or 20 cases, arguing it is impossible to investigate every killing.

Analysts say some of those behind the murders are known and even hold official posts. But it is difficult to prove something that happened during the chaos of wartime, even if rumors abound. Some worry that law enforcement bodies may charge innocent people in their haste to clear up cases or that influential political figures may use the opportunity to settle scores with their rivals.

In this atmosphere, it should come as little surprise that, unlike their Kazakh and Kyrgyz counterparts, Tajik journalists have never uncovered any domestic political scandals of weight. It’s not that themes don’t exist for enterprising reporters: the corruption monitoring organization Transparency International ranks Tajikistan as the sixth-most corrupt country in the world. And there are plenty of reasons to suspect official corruption in the massive drug smuggling operation (Tajikistan shares a 1,400 kilometer-long border with Afghanistan) and the cotton business, which is run by a few companies that often exploit farmers.

Or take land reform, as an example where the media, if given free rein, could help improve the lot of the peasants, who know next to nothing about their rights. Reforms were launched in 1996, and farmers received certificates from the State Land Committee. These papers confirmed ownership and stated that the owner has the liberty to plant whatever he wishes. In reality, many farmers work like slaves, having no choice but to plant cotton to satisfy the heads of local administrations, who must, in turn, follow “semi-official” directives from the central government. The local administration heads—personally appointed by the president—have enormous power; their offices thus strictly control the lives of farmers, many of whom prefer to be guest workers in Russia rather than to open their own agricultural enterprises. Yet the local media have remained largely silent, their work obstructed by the local authorities. Cases are monitored and cataloged by press groups, but the Dushanbe-based newspapers rarely report on them.

NOT THE DEEPEST OF ANALYSIS

Tajik newspapers occasionally invite outside analysts or their own correspondents to touch upon serious topics such as these. Yet all published stories do nothing more than “denote the phenomenon.” It has become fashionable to publish articles under headlines like “Tajik Corruption on the Rise.” However, most of these “analytical” pieces are merely superficial compilations of widely known facts with numerous references to the findings and statistics of invulnerable international agencies—the UN, OSCE, Transparency International, and so on. Nobody dares trace the chain of corruption and make it public, referring to real names and positions.

In this context, only a few of the dozen newspapers published in the Tajik capital—in Russian and Tajik—deserve any attention. These include Nerui Sukhan and Ruzi Nav, two privately owned, Tajik-language weeklies that regularly carry interviews with opposition leaders and publish articles illustrating human rights violations. They write about real cases, advocating for individuals who say the authorities have abused their rights. These two papers, plus Asia Plus and Vecherny Dushanbe, did a commendable job airing a variety of opinions on last year’s controversial referendum. That vote—dubiously supported by more than 90 percent of the electorate, with 96 percent turnout—allowed Rakhmonov to seek up to two additional terms as president.

But there are prices to be paid for such coverage. This past winter Ruzi Nav lost an entire edition when Sharki Ozod, the government-owned printing house, refused to print it. Shortly afterward, the paper received a letter from the prosecutor general's office and the Ministry of Culture accusing it of “publishing articles that groundlessly criticize the authorities, violate media legislation, and, in particular, insult the president.” Defamation of the president is a serious crime: according to Tajik law, which stipulates the principle of "information security," a media outlet can be held liable for anything deemed to threaten national security. Punishment tends to be meted out in simple and efficient ways. In January the tax authorities audited the financial records of four privately owned publications: Ruzi Nav, Nerui Sukhan, Oila, and the Uzbek-language weekly Tochikistan.

And other forms of intimidation might be on the way. An exorbitant lawsuit filed in mid-May has press groups worried that powerful business and political groups may start employing a method tried and true throughout the rest of the post-Soviet region. A lawyer has sued the popular Russian-language weekly Vetcherny Dushanbe for libel, saying he had been defamed by an article written by a former attorney, who left the country soon after the piece’s publication. The plaintiff has requested 300,000 somoni (around $106,000) as “moral compensation”—a ridiculous amount in a country where 83 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The case does not appear to be politically related, but media experts view it as a precedent for the Tajik press. While Tajik journalists obviously need to raise their standards and temper bouts of irresponsibility, huge fines would put all except the most commercially successful out of business.

LACK OF INFORMATION

The information vacuum in the media can also be tied directly to the information vacuum throughout the Tajik political structure. For example, journalists in need of official documents must obtain them by hook or by crook. While legally obliged to do so, the authorities never in fact publish the contents of many new bylaws; if a reporter is lucky, a few copies might be available in a high-ranking official’s dossier. Ministries only occasionally issue press releases, not surprising since only a few ministries have press offices. Government officials only rarely appear on radio or television to announce their plans or defend their policies—and most of these appearances are orchestrated and the coverage biased. Requests for information—even harmless queries for statistical information—are rejected as touching on “internal information” not for distribution to the media. As reported by RFE/RL, the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan had detailed 75 violations of journalists' rights through the first four months of 2004, with 36 involving denials of access to information (15 involved threats against journalists).

A few months ago Asia Plus approached all Tajik ministries and financial institutions asking for the salary figures for each minister and his deputies. Over the next two months the newspaper received only five answers, only two of which were intelligible and truthful. Asia Plus awarded those two honest ministers honorary certificates for cooperation with the press. Others ignored the request or came up with verbose explanations about professional secrecy. It turned out that a minister’s monthly wage is about $30 to $50, while it is common knowledge that top government officials drive luxurious cars and live in fancy, fenced-in villas with swimming pools and personal diesel generators that provide escape from wintertime electricity outages.

Many years may pass before newspapers such as Asia Plus take the next step and start running probing exposes that question how the lavish lifestyles led by so many top officials square with their measly salaries. But at least a few publications are moving slowly in that direction, no doubt realizing the public’s hunger for real news and analysis.
Konstantin Parshin is TOL’s longtime correspondent in Tajikistan.
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