Independent media outlets in Tajikistan say it has become difficult for them to interview officials following a new government directive instructing officials to make the state news agency their first choice of channels for giving information to the press.
Editors of independent outlets say that the directive already has had a chilling effect on officials who once spoke with them. The result could be a further shrinking of the already small space for independent journalists to operate in Tajikistan, where government monitoring and censorship have long been the rule.
Umed Babakhanov, head of Tajikistan's independent Asia Plus media holding company, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, that "if all official information goes through one channel, ordinary people will get less news about the government's activities. That will raise confusion and create a growing gap between the authorities and society."
The head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, Nuriddin Karshiboev, has called the new policy "against the constitution," which he said "provides equal rights to media outlets."
It is not clear when the directive assigning primacy to state news agency Khovar went into effect, since it was not made public by the government. On July 16, an exile-run news agency, Ozodagon, published a scan of what it said was the directive, dated June 30, but its authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
According to Interfax, the directive applies to information about government meetings, the president and his domestic and international trips, and any meetings attended by Tajik officials at home or abroad.
Asked why the directive was necessary, a presidential adviser told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that it is intended only to help the state-run news agency grow.
"This decision is made only with an aim to raise the state news agency’s visibility. The issue of the state news agency was raised recently during a government meeting and there was a comment that Khovar's correspondent always comes to cover official events but that other media, like Ozodi, are the first in disseminating the news," the adviser said on condition of anonymity.
"Khovar publishes its news with a delay and President [Emomali Rahmon] felt information about the activities of the government and other state institutions should be published efficiently and without any mistakes."
Still, the directive is likely to strengthen the government's control over the news agenda in Tajikistan by providing a check on officials' statements before they reach the public, with the state news agency able to decide what to highlight and possibly even what to leave out.
That, in turn, could diminish independent journalists' chances of directly raising social issues with officials or obtaining candid responses. Few officials are likely to seek to ignore the new instructions for fear of personally angering Rahmon, who has been Tajikistan's leader since 1992.
Tajikistan already consistently ranks near the bottom of international ratings for press freedom. It is ranked 116th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2015.
*This story has been amended to clarify that the directive instructs officials to speak first, not only, to the state news agency.