When an influential brother-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon mysteriously disappeared in April, the ensuing media coverage surprised many Tajiks.
It was notable because speculation mounted that Hasan Sadulloev had been murdered.
But it was more remarkable for its sheer volume, since such topics have long been taboo under the watchful eyes of the Rahmon administration.
Rahmon might not garner the headlines of Central Asia's most conspicuous enemies of the free press, but Tajik authorities' fierce defense of the president and his image have left little room for genuine public scrutiny of Rahmon, his policies, or his family.
Throughout much of the past decade, ordinary Tajiks have rarely voiced frustration with the government or head of state in the form of public protests. Demonstrations have been almost unheard of despite widespread poverty, rampant unemployment, and corruption.
Journalists who chose to challenge the country's leaders have faced serious retaliation -- in the form of beatings, firings, or closures of their publications.
But several protests have been held recently in the capital, Dushanbe, as well as in cities like Kulob, Panjakent, and Khorog. In one case, the appointment of a local official prompted a rally.
"People are not afraid of the government's retaliation anymore," says 22-year-old Safar, from the eastern Badakhshan region. "What else can happen to us? With a university diploma in my pocket, I have to work like a slave in Russia, because I don't have any -- literally any -- job opportunities in Tajikistan. The situation can't possibly get any worse than this."
The attitudes of many Tajiks appear to have shifted recently, with skyrocketing food prices and energy shortages that left people freezing to death in their homes during the coldest winter in living memory.
"People have to demand their rights through lawful ways," Safar says, "and this is the only way out of the situation for us."
Such refrains evoke a familiar Tajik expression that "there is no color darker than black."
Years Of Silence
Some observers ascribe citizens' apparent reluctance to speak out critically to caution in light of the fact that Tajiks took to the streets in the early 1990s to change the political system in protests that helped spark a bloody five-year civil war.
That theory appeared to hold true for several years after peace was established in 1997, as Rahmon dominated one set of flawed elections after another. At the same time, presidential friends and relatives took over many of country's major businesses, while an estimated 1 million people -- one-sixth of the country's population -- chose to migrate to Russia for work to support their families.
"People are tired of this situation, and the general impression is that the government is not capable of doing anything for them," Valiev says. "People take to the streets to demand their rights, saying they want a better life, better salaries, and so on."
Journalists and commentators have joined the chorus of public expressions of unhappiness with Rahmon and other government officials.
A commentary in the weekly "Nigoh" last month accused the government and the president's office of "favoring certain groups" and thus compounding the problem. "Managerial and other key positions are only given to wealthy people with connections, and it adds to people's dissatisfaction and their distrust of the government," "Nigoh" charged.
Many Tajiks complain that not only does the government appear incapable of creating jobs, corrupt government employees prevent people who want to set up businesses from creating new sources of income.
The weekly "Farazh" in June quoted the leader of the Social Democrat Party, Rahmatullo Zoirov, as claiming that "Tajikistan has never before been in such deep crisis." He added, "There is not any improvement in Tajikistan and the government offices do not carry out their duties."