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Tajikistan: Media See Gains, Setbacks

  • Bruce Pannier

Authorities in Tajikistan are offering their version of the "carrot and stick" approach in dealing with the country's media. Government officials announced this week they will launch investigations into the murders of journalists committed during the Tajik civil war, something international press organizations have for years been calling for. They also said they would review tax legislation with the possible aim of easing media outlets' tax burdens. But at the same time -- and with much less publicity -- the government is moving ahead with plans to close four of the country's independent newspapers.

Prague, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik authorities have announced a new effort to solve the murders of scores of journalists during the country's five-year civil war.

But even as the investigations were being discussed, other -- more quiet -- steps were being taken to undermine the cause of press freedom in the Central Asian nation.

Nuridin Karshiboyev, head of Tajikistan's national media association, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 6 January that it is an appropriate time to form a special commission to investigate the deaths of some 70 journalists during the civil war.

"The case of the journalists who were killed during the civil war should be investigated, because at this stage of development in Tajik society, such a step would increase the people's political awareness. Our society needs to know how many of our colleagues have been killed for journalistic activities and how many people have become victims of criminal groups," Karshiboyev said.

During Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war, the country was considered by international press organizations to be among the most dangerous spots in the world for journalists.

Scores of journalists, both local and foreign, were killed and wounded as they attempted to cover the unfolding of a the war. Some of these deaths were not just the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Influential figures in the civil war often tracked down journalists, angered by the stories that appeared in print.

Tajikistan was a deeply divided society by the end of the war in June 1997. The conflict -- mainly between former Communists backed by Russia and a coalition of opposition groups led by an Islamic party -- shattered the country. Local criminal groups often supported one or the other side, carrying out paramilitary assaults with impunity.

The healing process that followed the war left many issues -- like the journalists' murders -- on the back burner.

Two of the most high-profile murders during the civil war were seemingly solved last July when, in separate trials, two men were sentenced for killing a BBC correspondent in 1995 and a correspondent from Russia's ORT television in 1996.

Questions remain about those convictions, as one of the defendants found guilty was deceased and the other was serving a sentence in a Russian prison. But the trials -- and this week's announcement by Karshiboyev -- are a sign the Tajik government has not forgotten about the murders.

The Tajik government has other potentially good news for the country's cash-strapped media -- a review of taxes with an eye toward reducing their financial burden.

Presidential press secretary Abdufattoh Sharifov on 7 January confirmed the review was under way and said they would be finished in about three months.

"The Ministry of Finance, jointly with the Ministry of State Revenues and Tax Collections and the Ministry of Economy and Trade, will analyze activities of the print media and submit before 1 April to the government proposals on the possibility of exempting periodicals from some taxes," Sharifov said.

But not all the news is good. The State Revenues Ministry is pushing ahead with actions against four independent newspapers -- "Ruzi Nau," "Niru-i Sukhan," "Oila," and "Tojikiston."

The weekly "Niru-i Sukhan" has had its printing rights suspended after tax officials said the paper failed to include obligatory publishing data in copies of the paper published in late December. But the paper's editor, Mukhtor Bokizoda, says it is the Sharqi Ozod printing house, and not "Niru-i Sukhan," that is to blame.

"When a private publisher addresses this or that complaint to the printing house, the response is simply that 'someone from above' called and said the government does not want this newspaper printed. But since we have an obligation to our readers, we must do whatever it takes to publish and so we choose to print as possible, even without the usual information about printing houses and edition numbers. We know it is not legal but we are forced to do it this way and therefore we have been prohibited from printing the last edition," Bokizoda said.

Safhat Burhan, a journalist at "Niru-i Sukhan," was more direct in his comments on who was responsible for the ban and said it was an ominous sign for the future.

"Never did our readers think that the printing house or the taxman closed us down. They say [Tajik President] Imomali Rakhmonov shut down the newspaper. And when you shut down an independent newspaper, [the public] says that Rakhmonov, though he says he is building democracy, is actually developing an authoritarian state," Burhan said.

Another newspaper, "Ruzi Nau," is facing bigger problems. The Prosecutor-General's Office issued a warning to the paper against insulting the dignity and honor of President Rakhmonov. But even before the warning, the state publishing house refused to print the newspaper without offering any clear explanation.

Qironshoh Sharifzoda, chairman of the Association of Independent Tajik Journalists and a professor of journalism at Tajik State University, said the controversy surrounds articles that were critical of the government. But Sharifzoda says they were based on comments from people outside the newspaper who were offering their opinions about the situation in Tajikistan.

"The articles were written on the basis of facts given by experts and specialists. It is not the opinion of journalists. We do not see any violations here. Journalists have such a right," Sharifzoda said.

Khurshed Niyazov, the deputy editor in chief of "Ruzi Nau," said in such circumstances it is difficult for journalists to discern where their duties lie.

"This is the main problem that concerns all Tajik journalists, me especially, he said. "We do not understand how we should write so that simultaneously we will satisfy society and the government. Our problem is that we believe promoting a free press in our society is our civic duty, but for various reasons they want to shut us down."

Nargiz Zokirova is the author of a recent report by the Independent Association of National Mass Media in Tajikistan about the country's media situation. In a comment to RFE/RL, she seemed to support some of the complaints made by the people from "Niru-i Sukhan" and "Ruzi Nau."

"During the last four months, our organization has registered more than 60 violations against journalists. These are mainly threats, creating obstacles in getting information and hindering journalists from carrying out their professional duties," Zokirova said.

So, even as Tajikistan attempts to deal with a problem lingering from its unhappy past, it may be creating a milder, but still serious, problem for the future of independent media.

(Salimjon Aioubov, Rahmatkarimi Davlat, and Soldjida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
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