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Analysis: Tajik Independent Newspaper Waiting For A New Day

Tajikistan's independent weekly "Ruzi Nav" (New Day) has been waiting for what its name promises since tax police shuttered the Jiyonkhon printing press in late August. In the interim, days have stretched into weeks. The newspaper has appealed to both Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and the international community, tried unsuccessfully to find other printers in Tajikistan, gone to the trouble of running off an edition of the newspaper at a printer in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and seen that edition confiscated by the transportation tax police at Dushanbe's airport. "Ruzi Nav" now awaits a ruling from Tajikistan's Culture Ministry even as the editors ready a lawsuit.

The independent weekly's troubles began when the tax police shut down the Jiyonkhon printing house on 18 August. Ironically, "Ruzi Nav" was peripheral to the problem that shuttered Jiyonkhon. The police were going after "Nerui Sukhan" (Power of the Word), another independent weekly that has made a name for itself with hard-hitting articles and, like "Ruzi Nav," had its share of run-ins with the authorities. Asia Plus quoted "Ruzi Nav" Editor in Chief Rajab Mirzo on 19 August as saying: "[The tax police] seized the edition of 'Nerui Sukhan' and sealed the printing house, and the regular editions of 'Ruzi Nav' and [Islamic Renaissance Party newspaper] 'Najot' have not been published. The tax police officers justified their actions by saying that the number of published copies exceeded the figure given by the newspaper."

In an appeal to President Rakhmonov and members of the international community on 19 August, Mirzo charged that "the purpose of closing down the Jiyonkhon publishing house under the pretext of 'Nerui Sukhan's' problem is also to prevent the publication of 'Ruzi Nav' and 'Najot.'" At the same time, the newspaper looked elsewhere for a printer, but to no avail. On 24 August, "Ruzi Nav" correspondent Manuchehr Masud said, "The newspaper will not be published even this week because no printing house has volunteered to publish it yet," Avesta reported. In another open letter to the president and the international community, this time on 26 August, Mirzo noted that the owners of other printing presses told him that "they have been ordered not to publish" the newspapers stranded by the closure of Jiyonkhon.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued an open letter on 31 August to President Rakhmonov protesting the harassment of journalists in Tajikistan. The appeal stated: "The clampdown on 'Ruzi Nav' is of particular concern; the newspaper has endured ever-growing pressure from authorities since its launch in August 2003. 'Ruzi Nav' has exposed government corruption and criticized the government's record in combating drug addiction and prostitution." The letter concluded, "we call on you to dismiss government officials who are harassing journalists, and ensure that police and prosecutors aggressively investigate and prosecute those responsible for harassing and attacking journalists."

Officials shrugged off charges of media harassment and insisted that the tax police were merely going about the mundane business of enforcing the law. Davlatali Davlatov, deputy leader of the ruling People's Democracy Party, told Avesta on 7 September, "It is clear that the activities of ['Ruzi Nav,' 'Nerui Sukhan,' and 'Najot'], including the printing house that used to print them, were suspended because of tax evasion and problems with the tax police."
A 9 November report on Tajik television detailed the government's efforts to create a "reliable legal basis for a free press," noting darkly that some individuals in the media "are taking advantage of this and breaking the law."

Time passed. By mid-October, "Ruzi Nav's" search for a printer had taken it out of Tajikistan. On 18 October, Editor in Chief Mirzo told Iranian radio that "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," and "Olamu Odam," another newspaper unable to find a printer in Tajikistan, were going to be printed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with legal help from the media-assistance foundation Freedom House. Mirzo explained, "We are going to send the newspaper via e-mail [to Bishkek] and we have made a contract with a Kyrgyz transport company, which will deliver the newspapers [to Tajikistan]."

But when the print run arrived in Dushanbe from Bishkek on 4 November, it fell afoul of the tax police's transportation division, which promptly impounded it, Asia Plus reported. But before they confiscated the print run, tax police fully explored their options. First, they counted the newspapers to make sure that the actual number corresponded to the declared number of 15,000. Next, they suggested that the shipment could serve as the host for an infectious disease. Finally, Mirzo told the news agency, the tax police declared the newspaper a cultural artifact and shipped it off to the Culture Ministry for a definitive ruling on the legal intricacies of its transportation across borders.

Once again, the official story was at variance with reporting by independent news agencies and the explanations of Editor in Chief Mirzo. A 9 November report on Tajik television detailed the government's efforts to create a "reliable legal basis for a free press," noting darkly that some individuals in the media "are taking advantage of this and breaking the law." A tax official then explained that the Kyrgyz edition of "Ruzi Nav" was printed under a contract that described the newspaper as a weekly registered under Kyrgyz laws, while the newspaper's statute is registered with Tajikistan's Justice Ministry. The official promised that the Culture Ministry would resolve the matter. Leaving aside the seeming oddity of referring a dispute over contracts and statutes to the Culture Ministry, the report concluded with the rhetorical question, "At a time when the newspaper is calling for the strengthening of a democratic and law-based society...wasn't it possible to arrange the publication of the weekly in this country, and to contribute to resolving society's problems by paying taxes to the budget?"

As the Culture Ministry mulled the matter, a despondent Mirzo told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 13 November: "This is definitely an example of censorship. I think that it's not going to end here. Our case will probably be sent to other [government] agencies and they'll drag it out that way until people forget that such a newspaper existed." For his part, Tajik political analyst and journalist Nurali Davlatov told RFE/RL that he didn't buy the official claims of a simple tax dispute devoid of political subtext. "I think that this affair is connected to Tajikistan's upcoming [February 2005 parliamentary] elections. Tajikistan, which has proclaimed itself a democratic state, will be well served, I think, by resolving this matter in court," Davlatov said. Mirzo seemed to agree, telling RFE/RL that the newspaper's staff is preparing to file a lawsuit in the near future.

The Justice Ministry was still readying its review as of 16 November, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. An unnamed source at the ministry told the news agency that not every member of the commission appointed to decide the newspaper's fate had managed to examine the material. Queried about "Ruzi Nav's" chances, the source would only say that he didn't find the newspaper's articles so critical that they needed to be banned.

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