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Tajikistan: Concerns Grow Over Media Freedom

Three Tajik newspapers have been missing from newsstands since authorities last week closed down the only printing house that agreed to publish them. Western embassies in Dushanbe reacted by expressing concern about media freedoms in Tajikistan. Local and international media watchdogs went one step further, denouncing what they call attempts by Tajik officials to silence the independent press ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At a press conference today in Dushanbe, U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland encouraged the Tajik authorities to support the development of an independent media.

He said this, in turn, would help accelerate progress toward democracy.

"Since Tajikistan has publicly expressed that it intends to be a member of the democratic states of the world, I believe it's important from time to time to remind about the most fundamental tenants of democracy," Hoagland said. "One of [them] is pluralism and freedom of the mass media."

Hoagland's comments came after three independent and opposition newspapers in Tajikistan -- "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan" and "Najot" -- were forced out of print after authorities last week closed down their printing house.

Officially, the closure of the Jiyonkhon printing house is the result of a tax investigation into "Nerui Sukhan."

A U.S. Embassy statement issued yesterday said this action sends a message to other printing houses that they will also be held responsible for mistakes made by their customers. This situation may make them unwilling to print papers out of what the embassy calls "fear of retribution."
The ambassadors of Germany, France, and Britain have called on the Tajik authorities not to obstruct the publication of the newspapers.

In a joint communique issued yesterday, the ambassadors from Germany, France, and Britain called on the Tajik authorities not to obstruct the publication of the newspapers.

German ambassador to Tajikistan Harald Loeschner told RFE/RL that he believes a solution will be found to remedy the situation.

"We three European ambassadors here in Dushanbe, put a great accent on maintaining and promoting the freedom of the press. And we think that all papers should have a [place] to publish," Loeschner said. "We will keep up our dialogue with the Tajik authorities, which is a good dialogue. Normally, we find good solutions to any problems that we should have."

A statement issued yesterday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) echoed the ambassadors' concern. It described as a "worrying backward step" what it called the recent "repeated and varied" difficulties faced by some media.

According to Nuriddin Karshiboyev, chairman of the Tajik Independent Press Association, pressure on freedom of speech is increasing as the February parliamentary elections draw nearer.

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the closure of the printing house "a political step" meant to silence independent newspapers before the elections.

Soria Blatmann, who heads the organization's Europe desk in Paris, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that "those medias are very critical towards the president [Imomali Rakhmonov] and the government. And we fear that [the closure] is a kind of way to silence the most critical journalists before the elections, which is a classical method in this [region]."

Blatmann also noted what she called a general decline in working conditions for Tajik journalists.

One month ago, unknown assailants attacked and beat "Ruzi Nav" Editor Rajab Mirzo in Dushanbe. Mirzo said he believed the attack was linked to his articles exposing government corruption. The Dushanbe prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into the incident.

Mavluda Sultonzoda, a journalist with the "Ruzi Nav" and "Nerui Sukhan" weeklies, said she received telephone threats after writing an article in which she criticized Rakhmonov and his government.

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