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Tajikistan: President Affirms Support For Independent Media, But Doubts Remain

Important steps were taken last week to broaden access to information in Tajikistan. A private broadcasting company is now offering 12 television channels in Dushanbe. The independent news agency Asia Plus has also announced it has received rights to broadcast in the capital -- permission it had sought for four years. RFE/RL reports, however, that despite such positive developments, the power of the state body that grants broadcasting licenses remains firmly in place.

Prague, 5 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of the Tajik capital Dushanbe currently have no real options for tuning into independent television and radio broadcasting. Although Tajikistan has 15 independent television stations and one independent radio station, their range is limited and their audiences small. In Dushanbe, only state-run and pro-government stations are currently operating.

Tajik authorities routinely deny broadcasting licenses to independent television and radio stations -- a practice that has drawn fire from media-freedom advocates. But the system is beginning to change. Most recently, a private broadcaster last week began providing nonstate programming to the Tajik capital.

The company, TV Service, holds broadcasting rights for a total of 12 channels featuring sports, feature films, cartoons, and musical programs in Russian, English, and Hindi.

Vadim Engelhard, the financial officer for TV Service, told RFE/RL his company holds the license to 10 foreign channels -- eight of which are Russian -- and two local channels. "Currently our company has access to 12 channels, and our general director is trying to reach an agreement with the Fox Kids channel. We will not translate anything: We will rebroadcast programs as they are. The fees for the use of the channels for six months are $10, which means that we offer a discount of $2. The monthly fee is in fact $2," Engelhard said.

The arrival of TV Service in the capital appears to signal a softening stance by the Tajik government on the independent mass media. President Imomali Rakhmonov went one step further in remarks last week, stating that without a strong, professional, and independent media there is no possibility of establishing a law-based government.

Rakhmonov made his statement after a meeting with Umed Bobkhonov, the director of the independent Asia Plus news agency. Asia Plus had tried for four years with no success to obtain a broadcasting license from the State Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting. During the meeting with Rakhmonov, Bobkhonov discussed the committee's failure to grant Asia Plus the right to provide independent radio broadcasting in the capital city. "First of all, we asked the president why Asia Plus has not been able to get a license to broadcast since 1998. We told him that we have followed all proper legal procedures and that we are just waiting for the permission from the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting to broadcast. The president expressed his opinion about the situation of the Tajik press, adding that there should be independent media in the capital. The president promised that he would tell the committee to give a license to Asia Plus in the coming days," Bobkhonov said.

Bobkhonov said three weeks after it was once again refused a radio license, Asia Plus received a promise from Rakhmonov that his news agency will be able to begin radio broadcasts on 9 September.

Asia Plus started six years ago as a news agency, and began publishing a weekly paper about two years ago. This year, the media outlet launched a television production house, which is also encountering problems.

Marat Mamadshoev, a commentator at the Asia Plus weekly, said the internal situation in Tajikistan has improvedsince the end of the 1992-1997 civil war. This in turn has allowed the government to gradually address other problems, such as the lack of free mass media.

Mamadshoev added that he wants to believe the recent Asia Plus and TV Service decisions are part of a new policy of liberalization on the part of Tajik authorities, who he said are facing increasing "international pressure."

Rashid Ghani, an independent political researcher in Tajikistan, agrees. He said that regardless of the government's motivation in extending the new broadcasting licenses, the change marks an important step for Tajik society. "The reasons behind [the president's] decision are not important. This is happening, and it is important for us. This is a positive step, and I think it should be supported. It means that the government is paying attention to the situation and the status of the press in the current democratic process," Ghani said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists cautiously welcomed Rakhmonov's decision. In a statement, Executive Director Ann Cooper called the move a "positive sign," and called on the Tajik government to "follow up its words with action."

According to many observers, the still relatively unchecked power of the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting still raises concerns about the real intentions of Rakhmonov's regime. The state body, they argue, fears the emergence of competitors and will fight to maintain a monopoly in the field.

Junaidulloh Ibodov, a Tajik lawyer, is critical of the television and radio committee's hold on power. He told RFE/RL that Rakhmonov's recent intervention in the affairs of Asia Plus should not be the sole solution to problems in a country that claims to abide by its laws. "I do not think that this [decision to allow Asia Plus to broadcast in Dushanbe] is going to be a systematic trend and that similar problems will have a similar positive development, because the interference of the president to get permission for Asia Plus is an exception. This should not be the case. Laws should be implemented, not the decision of a high-ranking official," Ibodov said.

The main problem, Ibodov argued, remains that the existing media law gives full authority to the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting to deal with the question of licensing. He proposed an alternative to this state body. "We have to create a special public and state board to deal with the issuing of licenses under the conditions of competition. This cannot be a purely government body. And this cannot be the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting because it is not interested in having competition with private nongovernment broadcasters," Ibodov said.

But Muhammad Goibov, deputy director of the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting, denies the argument that his organization has put a stranglehold on media development in Tajikistan. The committee, he said, is an independent organization that is seeking to ensure "professionalism" in the Tajik media. "Here in this committee there are members of other commissions. There are people from the Communications Ministry, there are representatives from nongovernmental organizations, from associations, and from the capital-city television channel," Goibov said.

Nevertheless, observers point out that the issuing of a radio license to Asia Plus is partly due to international pressure. The final rejection by the Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting to issue a license last month raised considerable local and international concern. The committee at the time said a private alternative to state-run radio in Dushanbe was "unnecessary." In May 2001, the committee adopted a regulation permitting a license to be refused on this basis alone.

The National Association for Independent Media in Tajikistan has called such reasoning an attack on freedom of speech. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom and media, Freimut Duve, said the committee's argument is not compelling in light of the standards and commitments Tajikistan has undertaken to follow as a participating state of the OSCE.

As early as June, international and local critics won a small but significant victory, when a criminal case against Dododzhon Atovulloev, editor of the opposition "Charogi ruz" newspaper, was closed. Atovulloev fled in exile to Germany in May 2001 after being accused of attempting to overthrow the state with the critical reporting in his newspaper. This, a spokesperson for the Internews media support group said, was "the first time that the Tajik government felt intense pressure."

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