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Tajikistan: Journalist-Rights Group Says Self-Censorship Stifling Media

  • Antoine Blua

Five years after Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war, international monitors say press freedom is still not guaranteed in the country. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, self-censorship is one of the main obstacles to a free press in Tajikistan, where mafia-like networks and political and ethnic infighting are rife.

Prague, 28 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 8 May, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to the foreign minister of Tajikistan, Talbak Nazarov, outlining its concerns about press freedom in the country.

In the letter, the press watchdog group said the political factionalism that erupted during the country's five-year civil war -- as well as the murders of many journalists during the conflict -- has led to widespread self-censorship.

Tajik Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Satarov told RFE/RL that he did not want to comment on the CPJ statement.

Since 1992, the CPJ has documented 19 murders of Tajik journalists, most during the country's 1992-1997 civil war. According to Alex Lupis, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, the press has become more cautious as a result.

"I think that really taught a lesson to journalists in Tajikistan that there's basically, you know, an environment of impunity there. That there are different groups -- whether they be political parties or paramilitary groups, or simply the police forces or the [secret police] -- who can murder journalists and will not be held accountable for their acts," Lupis said.

Since a peace accord ended the civil war in 1997, Lupis said, the number of murders has dropped. At the same time, he said, journalists continue to be attacked and harassed, and occasionally killed. He said efforts by law-enforcement officials to provide protection or legal recourse have been inadequate, and that those involved in attacking and murdering journalists seem to have nothing to fear.

"Certainly the number of journalists who have been murdered has dropped significantly. There were only a handful in the late 1990s. But nonetheless, they did continue to some degree. And yet, again the government has shown absolutely no commitment to pursuing these cases," Lupis said.

Roshan Khadivi is the Tajikistan country director for Internews, an international nonprofit organization supporting open media. She said Tajikistan's broadcasters work under extremely difficult conditions.

With almost no legal support for independent broadcasting and the government highly sensitive to outside political influence, Khadivi said the country's television and radio stations are under constant threat of being arbitrarily closed. She cited one such incident involving Radio NIC, the country's first private radio station to receive a broadcasting license.

"For example, Radio NIC wanted to broadcast regularly. However, they were stopped [earlier this year] in the capital, Dushanbe. Their license was not renewed. There is really no reason for that. None of the government officials has provided any sort of reasoning behind that," Khadivi said.

The country's only remaining independent radio station, Radio Tiroz, continues to broadcast, but only in the remote northern regions of Tajikistan. The majority of the country's 15 independent television stations likewise are limited to that relatively secluded area. Khadivi said she believes this system -- which allows the stations to target Tajik-speaking citizens living in neighboring Uzbekistan -- is politically motivated.

Despite such obstacles, however, Khadivi said Tajikistan's independent television stations are becoming an impossible force to ignore. In the runup to the February 2000 parliamentary elections, when state-run television refused to hold debates, candidates turned to nonstate stations instead.

"That was quite significant. For the first time, television stations in the cities of Khodzhent, Isfara, and Kanibadam provided a platform for different political parties to have a political debate. [However], this was not visible in Dushanbe at all. And [the debates were] also done [only with the help] of a few [international] organizations," Khadivi said.

The televised debates were made possible in part because of a conference held in early February 2000 on Tajikistan's new electoral law and the role of mass media. The conference was organized by Internews, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Open Society Institute.

According to Rashid Ghani, an independent Tajik political researcher, international organizations should try to understand Tajikistan's media environment rather than simply to criticize it. He said the free-press standards that bloomed in the early 1990s are in large part to blame for the war and chaos that ensued in Tajikistan:

"In the beginning of the 1990s, our mass media [were] totally free. But society was not [prepared] to accept such freedom. And our journalists, our intellectuals who used to write a lot of things, should also feel [responsible], at least partially, for the civil war," Ghani said.

Ghani said international organizations should adapt their recommendations to the local situation. Otherwise, he stressed, outside recommendations like this month's letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists could be interpreted, as he put it, as "some kind of extremism."

"After the civil war, we made censorship ours. We followed self-censorship not because we were afraid of the authorities or something else. We were afraid of repeating the situation when the society split into different factions," Ghani said.

But Lupis of the CPJ denied the accusation that the recommendations his organization is making are an extreme way of forcing Tajikistan to embrace imposed Western standards.

"There are governments all over the world that allow printers to publish any publication that's able to pay a reasonable fee. They allow journalists to criticize the government, and they arrest and prosecute people who intimidate or murder journalists. That's something that in the vast majority of countries is quite common," Lupis said.

Lupis said the CPJ is encouraging Tajikistan to start moving in a direction that will eventually welcome citizen participation in the government and allow journalists to serve the public. According to Lupis, the free flow of information in the end helps the government make better political decisions, and in so doing, helps promote stability.