DUSHANBE -- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has criticized Tajik authorities for "harassing the media" just weeks before parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
Reacting to a series of lawsuits against leading independent Tajik newspapers, the Paris-based organization said in a statement that "Tajik officials must stop using the judicial system to harass independent news media."
RSF was also critical of an appeal court's decision to uphold an astronomically high fine against a weekly newspaper and the announcement of new lawsuits against four other newspapers.
The fine of 300,000 somoni ($68,670) against the weekly Paykon ("Arrowhead") was confirmed on January 26 by a Dushanbe court. The newspaper had been ordered to pay this amount in October in a libel suit by Tajikstandart, a government agency that monitors the quality of imported goods.
RSF stated that "aside from the flawed legislation, a new tendency is emerging in the lawsuits that have been brought against the country's leading independent newspapers in the past few days. With just weeks to go till parliamentary elections on February 28, there is clearly an all-out drive to intimidate news media and get them to censor their coverage of state authorities."
The Tajik Agriculture Ministry has brought a libel suit against the leading newspaper "Millat" (Nation) in which it is demanding 1 million somoni in damages.
Libel actions were brought also against three other leading newspapers -- "Asia-Plus," "Ozodagon" ("The Independent") and "Faraj" -- by three Supreme Court judges and a judge based in the Dushanbe district of Sino for their coverage of a conference about corruption and bias within the judicial system.
The suits demand a total of 5.5 million somoni in fines. RSF said "Tajikistan's last parliamentary elections led to a crackdown on the media and it seems that history could be in the process of repeating itself.”