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Maverick Editor Survives Beatings, 'Changes Tajik Journalism'

  • Farhodi Milod

"Telling the truth is our right," says Rajabi Mirzo.

"Telling the truth is our right," says Rajabi Mirzo.

DUSHANBE -- There's no shortage of job openings for journalists in Tajikistan.

So why is 35-year-old Rajabi Mirzo -- the former editor in chief of the groundbreaking independent newspaper "Ruzi nav," a man once voted Tajik "Journalist of the Year" – unemployed?

The manager of one newspaper in Dushanbe, who asked not to be named, sums up the attitude of many. He says he admires Mirzo's work as a journalist. "However, I don't want to have problems with the government by hiring Mirzo,” he says.

Mirzo is an aspiring Tajik politician and a maverick journalist famous for starting up "Ruzi nav," a wildly popular independent newspaper that freely criticized the government in a country where insulting the president carries the possibility of a five-year prison term.

Some in Tajikistan see Mirzo as a representative of a new generation of opposition figures capable of bringing about positive change in the country. Others describe him only as a troublemaker.

"If I get a job in a newspaper, it's possible the government would put pressure on the publication and even close it down," Mirzo says. "Apart from this, newspapers wouldn't allow me to write what I'd want to write."

'Words We Never Heard Before'

Meeting Rajabi Mirzo for the first time is a bit of a surprise. He comes across so differently from what one would expect after hearing and reading about him. He is a shy, quiet man, with a small build, haggard air, and a mouth brimming with gold teeth.

He was born in 1973 in the southern Vose district. Schoolmates remember him as both an intelligent student and as a rebel.

He began studying journalism at Dushanbe State University in 1991, a time of broad political change in Tajikistan and the beginning of the most turbulent time in the country's modern history. Newly established Islamic and democratic forces were opposing the country's communist leadership. The first Tajik president, Kahhor Mahkamov, had resigned, and a new president, Rahmon Nabiev, was elected.

"We would hear words we'd never heard before," Mirzo recalls, "such as 'freedom of speech' and 'democracy.'"

Mirzo joined the country's democratic forces shortly before civil war broke out. Islamic groups and democrats fought against the communist government. While the majority of people in his native Kulob region supported the communists, Mirzo was a staunch democrat.

Mirzo with "Ruzi Nav" staff in January 2004. Mirzo spent his life savings to start up the newspaper, which became wildly popular.
"I still believe they were right," he says.

During the war, Mirzo was forced to quit university and work in a market to support his family. He resumed his studies and returned to journalism when the war ended in 1997. He worked for a number of newspapers simultaneously, trying to earn enough money to pay the rent.

His work for the independent "Nirui Sukhan" (The Power of Speech) began to bring him notice. Mukhtor Boqizoda, the editor in chief of "Nirui Sukhan," says Mirzo was both a talented journalist and a brave man.

"Other journalists would opt for self-censorship and tried to avoid criticizing the government,” Boqizoda says. "Mirzo was fearless, however, and soon he had become an outspoken critic of the authorities. He would say, 'Telling the truth is our right.'"

Khurshed Atoulloh is a journalist and one of Mirzo's closest friends.

"There were two factors behind Mirzo's drive -- revolt and a paycheck -- and both were equally important for him," Atoulloh says. "He could earn a good salary working for other publications, but he couldn't work for newspapers that would not allow him to revolt, to criticize the government.”

'New Day' Dawns

In August 2003, Mirzo set up his own newspaper, "Ruzi Nav" (New Day), which was openly critical of President Emomali Rahmon's government and its policies. "Ruzi Nav" offered a forum for government critics and the political opposition.

Other journalists would opt for self-censorship and tried to avoid criticizing the government. Mirzo was fearless, however....
Mirzo said he spent his life savings -- some $3,000 -- to register "Ruzi Nav," but he needed more, and borrowed money from friends.

A few independent media outlets exist in Tajikistan but they generally avoid open criticism of the government. The state controls most printing presses, access to newsprint, and broadcasting facilities. In its latest human rights report on Tajikistan, the U.S. State Department said media outlets in Tajikistan practice self-censorship and are regularly subjected to various methods of political harassment, including trials to intimidate journalists and selective tax inspections.

In stark contrast to this tradition, "Ruzi Nav" freely criticized many politicians, but its main target was the president and his powerful inner circle -- his friends and family -- and the ruling People's Democratic Party's dominance of parliament, with some 90 percent of the seats.

At its peak, "Ruzi Nav" boasted a circulation of more than 17,000, when state-run newspapers, which enjoy obligatory subscriptions, had press runs of around 20,000 copies. The printing house complained it was unable to keep up with demand.

"Old ladies who made their livings by selling newspapers would fight for 'Ruzi Nav' because everybody wanted to buy it," says Bahrom Maraimov, the newspaper's former marketing manager.

"Luckily, 'Ruzi Nav' became very popular much sooner than I had expected," Mirzo says. "After three weeks, it became profitable, and I was able to repay my debts. I didn't have financial troubles anymore, and it meant a lot to me."

Unlike other media organizations in Tajikistan, Mirzo offered generous salaries. Atoulloh, who also worked for "Ruzi Nav," says Mirzo "brought the best and most talented journalists to 'Ruzi Nav.' He was like a talent scout."

Mirzo recovers in hospital after being hit in the head with an iron bar in July 2004 -- the second time he'd been attacked that year.
The lowest salary at "Ruzi Nav" was $100 a month, Mirzo says, at a time when the minimum wage in the country was below $10 a month. "Journalism wasn't a high-paying job in Tajikistan," he says, "but we broke that tradition."

Rumors abounded, however, about the newspaper's financial sponsors. Many said "Ruzi Nav" was secretly financed by President Rahmon's opponents. The weekly was linked financially to wealthy businesspeople and influential opposition leaders.

"Ruzi Nav" contained minimal advertising; Mirzo says most businesses were afraid of placing ads in a newspaper connected to the opposition. He maintains sales of the newspaper itself were the only thing that made "Ruzi Nav" profitable.

The authorities weren't amused.

In December 2003, the state-run printing house told Mirzo that it would no longer print "Ruzi Nav," forcing Mirzo to sign a contract with a private printing house, Jiyonkhon.

There would be many more pressures to come.

Attacked And Beaten

In early 2004, Mirzo and a colleague, Nurulloh Ismat, traveled to the northern city of Khujand, where they were attacked and severely beaten on a city street. They were admitted to Khujand hospital with head injuries, but were forced to flee and hide in a friend's home after the assailants, who were never found, pursued them in the hospital.

Shortly after, police knocked on the door of the flat where Mirzo and Ismat were in hiding. The police claimed to be checking property-ownership documents, even though such checks were almost unheard of in the normally peaceful city.

Rajabi Mirzo with his wife, Elzara, and his 2-year-old son, Umedjon.

Mirzo and Ismat managed to avoid detection, and returned to Dushanbe without further incident.

Meanwhile, "Ruzi Nav" had been going from strength to strength, and its circulation was increasing. People would travel to Dushanbe from remote villages to visit the "Ruzi Nav" office to complain about their problems.

"With 'Ruzi Nav' criticizing the authorities and giving a forum to government opponents," says Abdulloh Hakim, a Dushanbe-based expert on political affairs, "it felt like we had free press and free speech in the country."

Says Rajabi Mirzo: "As far as the state-run media was concerned, there was only one leader in the country: Emomali Rahmon. But 'Ruzi Nav' introduced many other personalities and potential leaders. We showed an alternative point of view."

"Ruzi Nav" became a trend-setter. Other independent publications, including "Nirui Sukhan" and "Odamu Olam" (People and the World) changed their tones and started to criticize the government, too.

Pressure Intensifies

In July 2004, Mirzo was again beaten, this time in front of his home. An assailant hit Mirzo in the head with an iron bar and left him bleeding in the street.

Two weeks later, while Mirzo was still in the hospital, the Jiyonkhon publishing house was closed by the authorities. Other printing houses that usually tried hard to find customers did not want to do business with "Ruzi Nav."

The final issue of "Ruzi Nav" was printed in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but authorities in Dushanbe did not allow Mirzo to distribute copies in Tajikistan. Since "Ruzi Nav" ceased publication, other independent newspapers, including "Adolat" (Justice), "Odamu Olam," and "Nirui Sukhan" have also closed.

'A Short But Bumpy Road'

In 2005, Mirzo began a new career, as a politician. He was a registered candidate for the Social Democrats in the country's parliamentary elections that year. "We wanted Mirzo to be on our party's list of candidates because he is a well-known journalist and has many supporters among the people," party leader Rahmatulloh Zoirov said.

In the end, Mirzo received only 3 percent of the vote, according to official results, losing to Nahtullo Nazarov of the ruling party.

Well, it was a short but bumpy road. My weekly was closed down, my political ambitions were defeated, and I experienced prison, too.
"Mirzo got very few votes," says Muso Asozoda, the head of the Dushanbe branch of the ruling People's Democratic Party. "It means that maybe he is a good journalist, but people don't think of him as a good politician. The election results proved it."

Mirzo soon joined the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan and became the head of its Dushanbe branch. The leader of the party, Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, was in prison, where he remains, serving 25 years on terrorism-related charges, as well as for abuse of office and financial mismanagement.

In 2006, however, the party disintegrated amid rumors of government involvement, and the Ministry of Justice officially recognized only one of its groupings, the Democratic Party of Tajkistan.

Mirzo and other party members organized a protest rally at the Justice Ministry. Mirzo was arrested, found guilty of disturbing public order, and spent 15 days in prison.

Mirzo says he's still deciding what to do now, following his failed bid for parliament.
These days, Mirzo makes ends meet by advising those few independent newspapers still being published. He relies on money his brother, a migrant laborer, sends from Russia.

"Well, it was a short but bumpy road," says Mirzo, who still serves as the head of the Dushanbe branch of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. "My weekly was closed down, my political ambitions were defeated, and I experienced prison, too."

Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, says it's not the end of the road for Mirzo, however.

"He changed Tajik journalism," Kabiri says. "It remains to be seen what he brings to politics."

No Regrets

I last saw Rajabi Mirzo after he had returned from attending his father's funeral in his home village in the southern Kulob region. He was unpacking his bags in his modest, rented flat in Dushanbe, where he lives with his wife of 12 years, Elzara, and their 2-year-old son, Umedjon.

With its threadbare furniture, Mirzo's flat is not unlike many other homes in Tajikistan, where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The flat is filled with books and old newspapers.

He takes a photograph of his father from one of his suitcases, hangs it on the wall, and stares.

"I haven't decided what am I going to do next," Mirzo says, "but I do not regret what I have done so far. I defended free speech and justice."

translated by RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah
About This Series
"On The Front Lines" features in-depth profiles of men and women in RFE/RL's broadcast area who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom, democratic values, and human rights. More
What Do I Believe?

We asked Tajik journalist Rajabi Mirzo to talk about the core beliefs that guide him in his life and work.

Side Lines: Rajabi Mirzo
Favorite book? "Martin Eden" by Jack London

Which living person do you most admire?
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

When will you know you've succeeded? When everyone's opinions are tolerated.

What is your worst vice or extravagance?
I want to know a lot.

What was the best day of your life? August 7, 2003 -- the day "Ruzi Nav" was born.

What would people be surprised to know about you? When I fulfill my duties in journalism, I would like to become a shepherd.

What is your greatest fear? My own daring

What is your greatest regret? A person who opposes my opinion and tries to impose his opinion on me.

What is your greatest achievement or accomplishment? I don't owe anything to anyone.
Making Contact
Want to get in touch with Rajabi Mirzo? Here's how: