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Tajikistan: After Outcry, Authorities Unblock Websites

  • Bruce Pannier

http://gdb.rferl.org/8b2d6ed2-4055-43e5-8b20-397f8c84d708_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/8b2d6ed2-4055-43e5-8b20-397f8c84d708_mw800_mh600.jpg Tajik President Rakhmonov is just a month away from an election (AFP) PRAGUE, October 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan's Ministry of Communications today appeared to bow to pressure exerted after authorities blocked websites that included opposition and other critical voices. It is still unclear whether officials are allowing unfettered access to all of the websites in question, but the ban had elicited charges that the government was unfairly shutting out alternative sources of information ahead of November's presidential election.

The official cutoff had proven unpopular in some quarters, and drew formal complaints.

"Many complaints were sent to us from nongovernmental organizations and international organizations," Olim Davronov from a regulatory agency within the Communications Ministry, said when announcing the reversal. "The Ministry of Communications summoned our deputy director, and then they reopened several websites."

It was not immediately clear which organizations submitted the complaints or which of the websites are now accessible. RFE/RL attempts to access at least some of those sites were successful within several hours of Davranov's announcement.

'In The Interests Of...'

In early October, the Communications Ministry gave Internet providers in the country an order.

"We received a letter on October 5, where it said that, in the interests of information security in the Republic of Tajikistan, we must cut off access to these websites," Maroof Muhammadov, who works for Istera, a Tajik Internet-service provider, explained the ministry's directive.
"The fact is that these five [targeted] websites...have been giving not only official viewpoints, but also offering alternative sources of information."


Many observers quickly viewed the move in the context of the upcoming presidential election. Incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov is the clear front-runner ahead of the November 6 poll. Few people are giving any of his four opponents much chance of reaching double digits in the voting.

At least five sites that were affected -- centrasia.ru, ferghana.ru, tajikistantimes.ru, charogiruz.ru, and arianastorm.com -- frequently carry articles critical of the Tajik government.

The president of Tajikistan's National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT), Nuriddin Qarshiboev, is among those who see a connection with the presidential vote. He said he thinks the government-imposed block was politically motivated.

"I believe this is linked to the ongoing campaign for the presidential election," Qarshiboev told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "By doing this, the government is trying to limit access to alternatives sources of information for Internet users. The fact is that these five [targeted] websites...have been giving not only official viewpoints, but also offering alternative sources of information."

Dangerous Precedents

Presidential allies have argued that the move was justified.

Saimiddin Dustov heads the analytical center of the presidential party, the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan. He said before today's reversal that the websites in question negatively affected policy making in Tajikistan.

"I think from the point of view of national interests [that] the closure of the websites is necessary," Dustov said. "Today these websites are very dangerous, and some of them have gotten to such a point that they could influence our decision-making on very important national matters."

Civic groups in Tajikistan and abroad had sprung to the defense of the websites and the public's right to such information. Many websites and online forums harshly criticized the move. One website targeted by the exclusion, arianastorm.com, even sent emails to its readers suggesting other ways to access its information.

Rescinding the order to block the websites could mark an important step for the Tajik government.

For Western countries and democratic institutes monitoring this presidential election, it is important that the poll and campaign be free and fair. The decision to limit access to information that some in the Tajik government find disagreeable would doubtless be contrary to such expectations.

(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
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