In a recent development that passed largely unnoticed, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has ranked Tajikistan in its 2008 Press Freedom Index, as having the highest level of media freedom among the five Central Asian states.
In the index published on October 22, Tajikistan ranked 106th among 222 countries with a score of 25.5 (on a scale of 1-100, 1 being the best and 100 the worst score), ahead of Georgia (ranked 120th with 31.25), Kazakhstan (125th; 35.22), Russia (141st; 47.50), Azerbaijan (150th;53.63), Belarus (514th;58.33), Uzbekistan (162nd;62.70), Iran (166th;80.33) and Turkmenistan (171st.95.50). Of the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic states, Armenia, Ukraine, and Moldova ranked higher than Tajikistan.
Some might consider that Tajikistan "hit the jackpot" undeservedly. But there are in fact solid grounds for the ranking that emerged. More important, and more worrying, is the fact that it is becoming progressively more difficult to evaluate objectively the media situation across the former Soviet Union, given that the governments in question have had 16 years in which to perfect the art of creating a democratic image that does not reflect reality.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted that trend in a report titled "Despots Masquerading as Democrats" (http://hrw.org/wr2k8/introduction/index.htm) released in January 2008. That report documents the way in which many authoritarian regimes have succeeded in crafting a favorable image by means of electoral fraud, sidelining and discouraging the political opposition, and silencing the media. The situation in Tajikistan fits that pattern perfectly.
RSF says its report "does not look at human rights violation in general, just press freedom violations." That is probably why it fails to mention significant trends in the relevant countries that could shed more light on the situation as a whole. Explaining how the index was compiled, RSF says it sends a questionnaire to its partner organizations, journalists, researchers, and human rights activists.
RSF's Tajik partner is the National Association of Independent Mass Media (NANSMIT), an NGO founded in 1999. NANSMIT head Nuriddin Qarshiboev says he does not agree with the country's score.
Little Sign Of Improvement
"There was no improvement of press freedom in Tajikistan," he said in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service. He pointed to two new negative trends, alongside the existing deep self-censorship that emerged during the 1992-97 civil war in which some 60 Tajik journalists were killed.
First, the government is increasingly worried by the availability of the Internet and has criminalized libel and defamation in cyberspace. Immediately after the passage of that legislation in July 2007, three young journalists who had cited information from an Internet site were brought to trial and risk being jailed for two years. Second, under the new law on access to information, government agencies have 40 days in which to respond to written requests for information. In his annual state-of-the-nation address, President Emomali Rahmon called on the government to make the mass media more efficient in "patriotic education of the people."
According to Rajabi Mirzo, the former editor of the now closed newspaper "Ruzi nav," the authorities have learned several ways of limiting press freedom unobtrusively. "We have many more so-called independent newspapers now, but many of them are serving the regime under unwritten gentlemen's agreements," Mirzo says. The scandalous closure of "Ruzi nav" in 2004 was condemned by many international observers, and the fact that Mirzo cannot register and print another newspaper could in itself be considered a violation of press freedom.
Mirzo says that international organizations are giving higher scores to Tajikistan not because the situation in that country has improved, but in comparison with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and also because conditions have deteriorated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Dodojon Atovullo, the founder of "Charogi ruz," the first independent newspaper in Tajikistan, was forced to leave Moscow for Paris last month due to threats by the Tajik authorities, who opened a criminal case against him because of his most recent interviews and his "newspaper in exile," which is available on the Internet and in hard copies smuggled into Tajikistan.
Tajik prosecutors are also investigating the professional activities of Uzbek-speaking journalist Tursunali Aliev, who published an article criticizing the mayor of a small town. It goes without saying that no one has the right to say or write anything negative about President Rahmon and a select group of senior government officials.
Dozens of journalists have repeatedly complained to international organizations that the Radio and Television License Committee is preventing some 25 new radio and TV stations from launching their broadcasts by not granting them the required license. So in their view, the RSF index constitutes a weak international response to the media situation in Tajikistan, if not a wrong one.
In past years, negative RSF rankings have helped generate international support for embattled Tajik journalists who demand their rights be respected. But this year's ranking serves to help the Tajik authorities in their roundabout approach to press "freedom." Having consistently rejected previous international reports on freedom of the press, this year for the first time they called the RSF index "accurate and very balanced."
Saidali Siddiq, who heads the information and analysis department within the presidential office and is one of President Rahmon's image-makers, even reasoned that if not a single journalist was killed, jailed, or beaten over the past year, there are no grounds to challenge that rating. But surely freedom of the press means more than just refraining from killing or jailing journalists?
Salimjon Aioubov is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Tajik Service. The views expressed in the commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL