DUSANBE -- Rights activists and media watchdogs have urged Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to reject proposed legal amendments that they say threaten freedom of speech in the Central Asian nation.
Both houses of Tajikistan’s parliament last month approved amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, which now need the president's signature to take effect.
The proposed legislation makes it illegal to disseminate false information about the coronavirus pandemic in the media, the Internet, and on social media.
Those convicted could face fines and up to 15 days in administrative detention.
Civil society and media organizations in Tajikistan and abroad warned the law could be used to prosecute activists and independent journalists.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement on June 30 that the draft amendments do not specify how the government would determine whether a report is false, giving authorities “a clear license" to "expand censorship efforts in the name of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.”
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said added that Rahmon “should not approve the proposed legislative amendments and should stop this crackdown on the press and social media.”
The head of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan called the amendments “a repressive step that will limit freedom of receiving and spreading information.”
Nuriddin Qarshiboev said the vague phrasing could empower the Tajik authorities to crack down on the press in the run-up to a presidential election scheduled for later this year.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned that the “vaguely defined” legislation could lead to censorship and other violations of press freedom.
Individuals found guilty under the proposed measures could be fined 580 to 1,160 somoni ($56-112), and legal entities such as news outlets could be fined 8,700-11,600 somoni ($844-1,124).
Tajikistan’s authoritarian government initially claimed there were no coronavirus cases in the country and Rahmon flouted warnings by international experts to order social-distancing restrictions or other measures to try to curtail the spread of the disease.
According to official numbers, 5,900 people have contracted the virus in Tajikistan and over 50 have died.