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Tajikistan: Crisis Of Independent Media Sparks International Criticism

Over the past year, Tajikistan’s independent media have suffered one setback after another. All the major opposition newspapers have been shut down, and recently the editor of one of those newspapers was jailed on what many say are politically motivated charges. In the last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed concerns about Tajikistan’s media environment.

Prague, 9 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There are fewer sources of information in Tajikistan these days. Independent media, especially newspapers, have been hit hard. Two dailies have simply vanished -- a fact that has been noticed by those selling newspapers.

“The popularity of newspapers like 'Ruzi Nau' and 'Nerui Sukhan' was high among our customers, but they have not been putting them out lately. I hope they start again,” one newspaper vendor says.

Readers agree the closings are unhealthy for the country’s political development. One reader in Dusanbe lamented the disappearance of “Ruzi Nau.”

“The newspaper 'Ruzi Nau' is very free and bold and wrote about serious issues and we read the paper with great interest," one newspaper buyer says. "If it were possible, I would ask the Tajik authorities to permit 'Ruzi Nau' to be published, and not only 'Ruzi Nau,' but other newspapers that worked independently and could openly express their opinions about the government. Let them be published! Let the people read! That would represent progress in political life.”

Another reader in the capital said democracy will suffer in the absence of independent newspapers.

“There are a number of government newspapers, or papers that are partially owned by the government. But 'Nerui Sukhan' and 'Ruzi Nau' were supporters of democracy in Tajik society," the reader says. "It’s unclear why they were closed. I don’t think this means society is moving forward. There is a need for privately owned newspapers. It is unavoidable, whether you want it or not. If these [independent newspapers] are closed down illegally it is a very bad sign.”

The process of eliminating Tajikistan’s free press has been under way for some time.

Miklos Haraszti, the representative on media freedom for the OSCE, this week sent a letter to Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov to express his concerns. Harasti’s senior adviser Alex Ivanko explained the case to RFE/RL: “The first time Mr. Haraszti raised this issue [independent media problems] was with the authorities in Tajikistan last year during the annual OSCE-Central Asia Media Conference. And after that on several occasions he has written to the Tajik authorities and now after a year he again wants to raise awareness of the fact that this issue has not been solved.”

Some say it is becoming worse.
“I’m afraid that in this [Bokizoda’s] case, the Tajik government is taking a lesson from the Russian leadership who also destroyed NTV and closed TVN on economic pretexts." - Russian analyst

In his letter, Haraszti mentioned four opposition newspapers and two printing houses that have been closed. Then, at the end of last month, Mukhtar Bokizoda, the editor of “Nerui Sukhan,” was sentenced to jail.

Judge Safarali Qurbonov explained the charges: “The court ruled that Mukhtar Bokizoda, accused under Article 244, Part 1, theft of state property, should be sent to a correctional labor facility for two years and that 20 percent of the money he earns there be handed over to the state. They’ll tell him where to work, but it will be in his home region.”

Specifically, Bokizoda was found guilty of stealing electricity by hooking up wires in his office to streetlights. Authorities claimed Bokizoda might have drained as much as $500 worth of electricity without paying for it. Bokizoda has said he already paid off $300 of that debt.

His newspaper “Nerui Sukhan” has not come out since January, when tax police shut down the Kayho printing house for what they said was operating without having a license and not paying taxes.

The National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) monitors cases like that of Bokizoda. NAMSMIT head Nuraddin Qarshoboev expressed his surprise about the Bokizoda case.

“I don’t remember ever, during 14 years of independence in Tajikistan, that someone was accused of illegal use of electricity. We heard from witnesses who said there was nothing criminal about his [Bokizoda’s] actions and that he should be acquitted,” Qarshoboev said.

Aleksei Simonov, head of the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation, said Bokizoda’s case seemed similar to that of two Russian independent television stations. “I’m afraid that in this [Bokizoda’s] case, the Tajik government is taking a lesson from the Russian leadership who also destroyed NTV and closed TVN on economic pretexts,” he said.

Tactics aside, Rajabi Mirzo of “Ruzi Nau” says he’s unsure what authorities are seeking to accomplish by moving against Tajik independent media. “This all shows that the case has a political foundation," he said. "They [the authorities] want to intimidate the independent media and bar the road to free thinking and truth.”

Bokizoda was the second journalist jailed in Tajikistan this summer. Freelance journalist Jumaboi Tolibov was sentenced to two years in prison in late July.

Tolibov concurrently worked for Tajikistan’s department of justice while he wrote articles criticizing he region’s state prosecutor. He was found guilty of “incivility, violation of domicile, and breach of his obligations.”

(Salimjon Aioub of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report)

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