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Central Asia Report: January 11, 2004

11 January 2004, Volume 4, Number 2

OUTSPOKEN NEWSPAPERS FALL FOUL OF TAJIK GOVERNMENT. Within weeks of one another, two popular, independent, Tajik-language weeklies have recently had run-ins with the government in Dushanbe. Ostensibly one was in violation of tax rules; the other was warned for supposedly irresponsible reporting. In each case government obstruction ensured that one whole edition of the newspaper was lost. Both papers have reputations for shining a light into the murkier corridors of power and exposing government corruption. Both are now said to be under investigation by the financial police. Two incidents do not amount to a crackdown, any more than the sighting of the proverbial swallow means that spring has arrived. But the signs are manifest that -- after a couple of years during which President Imomali Rakhmonov's regime grew slightly more tolerant of criticism by independent media -- the president is fed up with the criticism and the honeymoon is over.

The independent Dushanbe weekly "Ruz-i Nav" (New Day) was first published in August 2003, and quickly built up a considerable following thanks to its coverage of alleged official corruption and other illegal actions by the authorities. The newspaper's troubles began four months after its launch when, on 27 November, the state-run publishing house Sharq-i Ozod refused to print its 17th issue. Under Tajik law, only a court may stop publication of a periodical. But, according to Editor in Chief Rajab Mirzo, initially no one at the publishing house could explain the reason for the refusal beyond saying it was connected with an inspection of the publication by the tax authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Subsequently, Mirzo said, the printers told him that the newspaper did not have a contract with Sharq-i Ozod for printing services, although apparently it did have such a contract. "The real reason is quite different -- the authorities are trying to shut down disobedient newspapers, using the printers as a tool," he said, as quoted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 7 January.

Immediately after "Ruz-i Nav" lost its issue, its employees appealed to Rakhmonov for an explanation of the suspension order. While they waited for the president to respond, publication was resumed at a private publishing facility, since the director of Sharq-i Ozod, Manjurkhon Dodokhonov, continued to refuse to print the weekly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003). Meanwhile four Tajik opposition parties -- the communist, democratic, social democratic, and socialist parties -- aimed to put additional pressure on Rakhmonov by issuing a joint statement that protested the refusal to publish the paper. They demanded that the government identify the people responsible for the decision, and accused the government of obstructing freedom of speech and the democratization process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003).

If they thought they had put the authorities on the defensive, however, they had to think otherwise on 30 December when tax officials seized and banned the sale of the holiday edition of a second independent weekly, "Neru-i Sukhan" (Power of Words). The paper, which began appearing in February 2003, had also attracted readers with its critical reporting of the president, parliament, and local authorities and, like "Ruz-i Nav," it regularly carried interviews with opposition leaders. The state publishing house Sharq-i Ozod shut its doors to "Neru-i Sukhan" in autumn 2003, after which time the paper used a private printing company called Karimjon-i Qodir, Asia-Plus noted on 31 December. The official reason for confiscating the issue was that it failed to display the name of the publishing house in the banner and the size of the print run, information which must appear on every edition by Tajik law. Asia-Plus said that Karimjon-i Qodir had been named in previous issues of the weekly, but the printer of the year-end edition did not want to be identified because, in the words of Editor in Chief Mukhtor Boqizoda, "many publishing houses were instructed not to print 'Neru-i Sukhan.'"

As for the failure to indicate the size of the print run, Boqizoda all but admitted to RFE/RL on 31 December that the omission was deliberate. "Today many publications are forced to conceal their real circulation figures due to the heavy tax burden," he said. In particular, news publications face a 20 percent value-added tax (VAT), leading some titles to underreport their circulation in an attempt to avoid being overwhelmed by taxes. The situation led the heads of 29 Tajik newspapers and media organizations to send an open letter to Rakhmonov in May 2003. They appealed for tax privileges for the media for 10 years, including exemption from VAT, income tax, and concessions on customs levies. Rakhmonov was publicly silent on the subject until this week, when Asia-Plus reported on 7 January that the president had ordered three ministries (the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of State Revenues and Tax Collections, and the Ministry of Economy and Trade) to jointly investigate the financial and tax situation of the Tajik media, work up proposals for tax breaks for the media, and submit them to the government by 1 April. According to presidential press secretary Abdufattoh Sharipov, the order was reflected in the government's resolution of 29 December on the national budget for 2004.

In the meantime, as IWPR commented on 7 January, an unworkable tax system that obliges independent media to cut corners in order to survive plays nicely into the hands of the authorities, who can crack down for legal infractions at any time. And, in fact, the government has indeed maintained that its action against "Neru-i Sokhan" was aimed purely at enforcing the tax laws. The newspaper's attempt to turn an economic matter into a political one, a government spokesman hinted, was merely a sympathy ploy by would-be tax evaders. But Boqizoda, the weekly's editor in chief, insisted to RFE/RL on 31 December that his paper's technical violations of the law were mere pretexts for intervention and that the government's real intention is to intimidate media that criticize it. According to a 4 January report by Deutsche Welle, the Tajik tax authorities are currently looking into the finances of four independent publications: "Ruz-i Nav," "Neru-i Sukhan," "Oila," and "Tojikistan."

Boqizoda's warning seemed to be borne out when the employees of "Ruz-i Nav," who had demanded that Rakhmonov explain why the state was refusing to publish the paper, finally received an answer in late December in the form of a threatening letter from Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov. As reported by Asia-Plus and Interfax on 4 January, the letter warned the paper to stop publishing articles that groundlessly criticize the authorities, violate legislation on the media, and allegedly incite ethnic conflict and animosity between different regions of the country. In particular, the letter warned against articles that "blacken the honor and dignity of the president" and threatened that if the weekly continued to publish such material it would be closed down. (Subsequent reports by Asia-Plus and Varorud news agencies seemed to suggest that "Neru-i Sukhan" had separately received a similarly threatening note from the prosecutor-general and that both newspapers had received follow-up warning letters from the Ministry of Culture.) Editor in Chief Mirzo told Asia-Plus that the warning was yet another example of government pressure on the publication. He argued that if the authorities considered themselves misrepresented by the paper they could sue for damages. Defamation of the president is punishable in Tajikistan by up to five years in prison.

The National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) released a statement on 6 January expressing its serious concern over the situation with "Ruz-i Nav" and "Neru-i Sukhan." It said that Sharq-i Ozod's refusal to discontinue publication of the former newspaper amounted to a violation of democratic rights and freedom of speech. The association also opined that it was high time to establish a Public Media Council that could address media disputes through civilized negotiations. The council could be made up of heavyweight reporters, chief editors of the electronic and print media, representatives of journalist organizations, and professional lawyers, the statement said. On the previous day, Asia-Plus said that NANSMIT had prepared a report on violations of the rights of journalists and the media in the last four months of 2003. The report cited almost 70 cases for that period alone (including the recent cases involving "Ruz-i Nav" and "Neru-i Sukhan"), mostly involving intimidation and restricted access to information, which the report described as limiting media freedom and hampering media development (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004).

COMMISSION TO PROBE JOURNALIST DEATHS DURING CIVIL WAR. If Tajik journalists are prone to be cowed by threats and intimidation, one cause may be traced to their experiences during the country's civil war from 1992 to 97. One of the lessons learned was the danger of crossing powerful figures. Between six and seven dozen reporters were murdered during those years. Hardly any of the murders were even investigated properly, much less solved or ended in trial.

Now a special commission has been set up under the Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry to investigate the killings of journalists during the civil war, RFE/RL and Interfax reported on 7 January. The group is headed by Sohib Sulaymanov, deputy head of the investigation directorate of the Prosecutor-General's Office. The news of its establishment was announced in a letter from Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov responding to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which recently submitted a list of journalists killed during the civil war to the Tajik authorities. CPJ asked what steps have been taken to identify and punish the killers, especially given that 70 of the murders have remained unsolved (78 according to some sources).

Bobokhonov noted in his response that three cases had been solved: the murders of Davlatali Rakhmonali, director of television programs for Tajik National TV; BBC Persian Service journalist Muhiddin Olimpur in 1995; and Russian ORT journalist Viktor Nikulin in 1996. In those cases the culprits have been sentenced to long prison terms of between 15 and 22 years. But Bobokhonov admitted that investigations into some cases had been suspended due to a lack of evidence. Some 150,000 people are thought to have died during Tajikistan's civil war.

MORATORIUMS EXTENDED ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. On New Year's Eve, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev signed an edict prolonging the country's moratorium on the death penalty for another year, the presidential press service reported on 1 January. The moratorium -- originally instituted for two years in December 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- has been extended each year since. According to AKIpress on 1 January, the 2004 extension both commemorated the 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration and was meant to underscore Kyrgyzstan's commitment to basic human rights and freedoms, humaneness, and mercy. The presidential press service also noted that the government aimed to improve the physical conditions for those prisoners waiting on death row, of whom there are currently 150 in Kyrgyzstan. Under the terms of a national human-rights development program presently underway, the government in Bishkek has said it aims to abolish capital punishment by 2010, IRIN news agency reported on 2 January.

On 18 December, Khabar news agency reported that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev had signed a decree ordering an indefinite moratorium on the application of the death penalty. The moratorium is intended to remain in force until the death penalty is abolished altogether. The decree instructed the government to draft an amendment to the Criminal Code that would designate life imprisonment as a possible punishment for serious crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). Nazarbaev's decree was welcomed in a statement by the European Union, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 6 January. According to the statement, eradicating the death penalty would increase the value of human dignity in Kazakhstan and promote "gradual" human-rights development. In the interpretation of Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, who issued a press release the same day, the EU regarded Nazarbaev's decree as "a significant step towards ensuring the protection of human rights in Kazakhstan and is a major contribution to the complete abolishment of capital punishment." The statement also quoted Anton Rupnik, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) chief representative in the Kazakh capital, Astana, as saying that the moratorium was "yet another major step towards futher improving the social and political system in Kazakhstan." The introduction of life imprisonment to replace the death penalty has been under discussion in the country since early 2003 in connection with ongoing reforms of the penal system. Nazarbaev and other political figures have often noted that the population remains largely in favor of retaining the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan continue to apply capital punishment, which is administered by firing squad. However, on 25 December the Uzbek Foreign Ministry informed Interfax that henceforth capital punishment would be limited to cases of terrorism and premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances. In December 2003, delegates to the Oliy Majlis (Uzbekistan's parliament) voted to abolish the death penalty for acts of aggression and genocide.

In Tajikistan's latest capital case, the Supreme Court sentenced 34-year-old Farhod Sharopov to death on 29 December, Asia-Plus said. He was found guilty of stabbing his wife and four young children to death in a family quarrel in July 2003.