DUSHANBE -- On a recent afternoon, Tajik bloggers, reporters, and journalism students gathered to hone their skills in digital media.
Huddled over laptops in a stuffy classroom, they discussed ways to present data, engage viewers, and highlight the issues at stake for the poor, corrupt Central Asian state they call home.
As the session drew to a close, they revealed the capstone projects they'd present to culminate the weeklong program. In a place where criticizing authority is fraught with danger, some ideas seemed to skirt the edge.
One student, Shamshod, would probe a grim statistic: Each year more than 1,000 Tajik migrant workers die in Russia, often while toiling on construction sites for minimal pay. Who should pay to repatriate them?
Hafizulloh, an aspiring reporter, would analyze the benefits of a planned reform to the Tajik education system and Malohat, an online editor, would investigate the management of the Dushanbe zoo, where visitors pay 1.2 somonis ($0.12) to view undernourished animals kept inside rusting cages.
"Are you sure people will talk to you?" asked Rajab Mirzo, the course leader and a prominent Tajik journalist. "Will you have access to documents about the budget and expenses?"
Malohat was thrown off-guard. "I'll do my best," she answered. "I'll make sure I get what I need."
Malohat and her classmates are entering a media landscape tightly controlled by the government of Tajikistan, a mountainous ex-Soviet republic of some 9.2 million people bordering Afghanistan to the south and China to the east.
In their mid-20s, the majority have lived their entire lives under the strongman rule of Emomali Rahmon, the 67-year-old president who swept to power in 1992 at the outset of a civil war that left tens of thousands dead and one-fifth of the population displaced.
Following the end of hostilities in 1997, Rahmon consolidated power by silencing and exiling opponents while subordinating all nascent media outlets to the official line. Extrajudicial blocking of news sites and social media has further restricted access to critical opinions in a country where less than half the population has Internet access.
Rahmon's portly, suited figure is plastered over facades and roadside billboards nationwide with slogans like "Our Leader! Our Pride!" -- while fawning coverage permeates staid reports on state TV channels that lavish praise on a government accused beyond Tajikistan's borders of rampant corruption and nepotism.
Each mention of Rahmon in the media is preceded by his official title: founder of peace and national unity, leader of the nation.
"Today, we almost have no independent voices left," Mirzo said during a break from classes. "It's hard to predict what's to come."
Silencing The Media
The course he teaches is organized by Khoma, a Tajik NGO funded by grants from the Dutch Embassy, Open Society Foundations, USAID, and others. Several times each year it offers free training to journalists in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and accommodation for those out of town. Featuring appearances from state representatives, Khoma ("Pen") is one of the few venues in Tajikistan where critical journalism and officialdom meet. And that number is shrinking fast.
Ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year, critics say the government of Rahmon -- widely expected to either extend his limitless tenure or orchestrate a leadership transition to 31-year-old son Rustam -- has launched a clampdown against any remaining media outlets outside its control.
Many journalists have been driven out of the country.
In a recent case, reporter Hairullo Mirsaidov was released from prison in August after serving nine months of a 12-year sentence on embezzlement charges. His arrest in December 2017 came shortly after he accused a high-ranking government official of corruption. In January, while Mirsaidov was seeking medical treatment abroad, a new charge was brought against him. He chose not to return home.
According to the NGO IREX, which has monitored global media sustainability since 2001, only eight investigations into socioeconomic and human rights issues in Tajikistan were published in 2018.
Many were the work of Radio Ozodi, the Tajik Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. Congress with a mission to provide objective news reporting in countries with few independent news sources. The service regularly covers subjects considered highly sensitive in Tajikistan, from forced service in its military and the harassment of exiled dissidents, to Internet troll farms hounding the president's critics.
In November 2016, the Tajik Foreign Ministry revoked the credentials of six Dushanbe-based correspondents after Ozodi refused to scrub a report on the appointment of Rahmon's daughter to a senior position in the ministry.
Mirzonabi Kholiqzod, the report's author and now Ozodi's acting bureau chief in Dushanbe, said that even before the accreditation issues, access to government officials had become all but impossible. "They treat us with respect, but they don't like our questions," he said. "People put down the phone as soon as they hear the word Ozodi."
Barely three weeks before, government officials had demanded the removal of an Ozodi report about a U.S. State Department warning on travel to Tajikistan because of terrorist threats. RFE/RL said it refused to remove that story, too. In August, Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin said that any Ozodi journalist whose publications even partially "discredit the government's current political course" would be denied accreditation.
The warning seemed prescient considering the situation in which Ozodi finds itself today, with 18 of its journalists and support staff being denied press credentials.
On October 30, after weeks of pressure from U.S. and international organizations, the Tajik Foreign Ministry granted short-term accreditation of three to six months to seven of them; at least two more, including Kholiqzod, have been unable to work since November 1.
In a letter to Muhriddin on October 31, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said the organization "will not succumb to pressure in our reporting in and about Tajikistan."
"Instead of addressing our concerns, your ministry responded to our repeated requests to accredit our journalists only yesterday, and with only partial approvals that fail to recognize the fundamental right of our journalists to work," Fly wrote.
Pressed again by Fly at a meeting in Zurich on November 7, Rahmon accused RFE/RL of biased coverage that violates Tajik laws, saying the service "has been mostly promoting reports about terrorist parties and movements whose activities are banned by the Tajik Supreme Court."
Tajikistan's only remaining independent media agency is faring no better.
Self-Censorship To Survive
The website of Asia-Plus, a private holding that includes a TV production company, newspaper, and radio station, has been blocked by the authorities since 2012, forcing the company to rely on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to promote its reports.
Editor in chief Olga Tutubalina said that in a bid to survive, Asia-Plus has been forced to completely shy away from sensitive topics. "There are things it's better not to write about because the government will lambast you," she said in an interview at the outlet's newsroom on Dushanbe's outskirts. "And there are things it's better not to write about because they'll jail you."
At least in part, the official justification for restrictions on free expression has been the threat of Islamic terrorism, acute since an exodus to Syria of fighters from Muslim-majority Tajikistan.
In June 2018, an attack on a group of foreign cyclists en route to Dushanbe -- which was subsequently claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group -- was blamed by the government on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Once Rahmon's only real opposition at home, it was declared a terrorist group in 2015 and banned. Tajik journalists who even mention the group, Tutubalina said, are liable to criminal prosecution. (Tajiks also face years in jail for insulting their president.)
A reported deadly firefight on the Afghan border in the early hours of November 6, which officially left 17 people dead, was only the latest reminder of Tajikistan's precarious position in an unstable region.
But the publication, redaction, and subsequent removal of some images from the scene by Tajik officials cast fresh doubt on the state's narrative about such incidents.
Asia-Plus remains an important source of news for educated Tajiks, and even government officials privately admit they use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access its content. But the threat of closure is always real, Tutubalina said. "If things were the way we wanted, in a democratic state, we could write about anything," she said. "But right now we're just hoping they don't shut us down altogether."
'End Of An Era'
Rajab Mirzo had the same hopes 15 years ago.
In 2000, he launched Ruzi Nav (New Day), a weekly whose peak circulation of 300,000 made it Tajikistan's most popular newspaper. It was fortuitous timing. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some free media outlets -- mostly newspapers representing emasculated opposition groups -- were allowed to operate in the country. But the Rahmon government blamed journalists for fueling divisions that sparked the civil war, Mirzo said, and grievances remained raw. Dozens of journalists fled.
The atmosphere turned Mirzo into a target.
In 2004, he survived two vicious attacks by unknown assailants. In January, he and a colleague were abducted in Khujand, a city 300 kilometers north of Dushanbe. In July, he was jumped outside his home in the capital; a deep scar is still visible above his forehead from the brass knuckles that connected with it. A month after that incident, authorities shut Ruzi Nav down.
"It was the end of an era," he said. "For me personally, and for Tajikistan."
Today, Mirzo runs Akhbor Baroi Afkor (Food For Thought), a Facebook blog with over 40,000 followers, where many posts are critical of the government. After almost 30 years reporting in Tajikistan, he said he no longer has anything to hide.
"I'm an open person, and they know what I do," he said of the government. "I often feel eyes on me, but if before there was fear, there's none anymore."
He's cautiously optimistic about the prospects for Tajik media if the president steps down next year.
"If Rahmon's son runs, he may be more democratic and the atmosphere may become freer," he said of Rustam Emomali, currently the mayor of Dushanbe. "But if Rahmon himself runs for reelection, they'll only tighten the screws."
'Last Hope For Many'
At the Dushanbe bureau of Radio Ozodi, which employs 23 journalists and five administrative staff, the mood on a recent afternoon was tense.
Its staff came under fire in March after EurasiaNet published an investigation alleging corruption at the agency, reports skewed in the government's favor, and articles removed after requests from the state security service.
RFE/RL's leadership promised to conduct an editorial review and correct the lapses, and two senior managers were replaced in the spring. Many say the news agency was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Under intense pressure to toe the government line, it's at times been forced to adapt in order to keep working in Tajikistan.
But Ozodi employees said not a single report had been amended under pressure since the staff reshuffle, and the service's record of intrepid, muckraking journalism will continue.
"People are on our side, even many government officials we meet on the street. They say Ozodi should be able to work," said Shodmon Yatim, an Ozodi journalist since 2013 and one of the employees still awaiting accreditation. "But when they're asked publicly, they say something completely different."
Shahlo Abdulloeva, a video journalist at the service, said what drew her to Ozodi was its reputation as one of the few outlets in Tajikistan that still provides a platform for ordinary Tajiks to report injustice.
"We are the last hope for many. When people can't get exposure elsewhere, they come to us," she said. "It shouldn't be that way, but it's something we're proud of."
For Tutubalina, Ozodi's continued presence in Tajikistan raises the quality of Asia-Plus's output and keeps the government on its toes.
"Ozodi are our main rival in Tajikistan. But if we didn't have them, things for us would be far worse," she said. "You can't survive alone."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Tajik Foreign Ministry revoked the credentials of six correspondents in 2018 instead of 2016. And the number of Ozodi journalists and support staff being denied press credentials today is 18 rather than 11.