The Prosecutor-General’s Office in Tajikistan has summoned for questioning close relatives of an independent journalist who has led critical coverage of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, in a sign of the increased efforts by authorities to stifle free speech.
Mirzo Salimpur, a founder of the independent Akhbor news agency and a former RFE/RL journalist, said on July 7 that four days earlier, the officials questioned his relatives and demanded his eldest daughter and two sisters-in-law speak against him “in a video.”
One of the women told RFE/RL that officials told them to halt all contact with Salimpur, who is based in Europe.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office declined to comment, but a source close to the agency confirmed to RFE/RL that the women were indeed questioned by officials.
The summons was aimed at “clarifying some information and also warning the relatives that they shouldn’t send any information, photos, or video material to Akhbor,” the official said on condition of anonymity, as they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
In an open letter to the office of the president, Salimpur described the incident as a “cowardly” attack on independent media. He urged the office of the president to prevent such “illegal acts” by Tajik officials as they tarnish the country’s image.
The Akhbor website was blocked on April 22 following its extensive reporting about a suspicious rise in “pneumonia” cases in Tajikistan as the government insisted the country was free of the coronavirus, while police harassed journalists who questioned the spike in pneumonia cases. Dushanbe finally admitted to having COVID-19 cases on April 30.
Tajikistan has long been criticized for clamping down on free speech and curbing independent media by arresting journalists, blocking access to websites, and denying accreditation to reporters.
Tajik authorities have also intensified pressure on the relatives of foreign-based journalists, activists, and opposition figures. Some relatives were forced to speak on state television channels, condemning the actions of their family member or calling them “terrorists” or “extremists.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Tajikistan 161st among 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
During a visit to Tajikistan in January, Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, said that the issue of press freedom was among the topics she had discussed with top Tajik officials.
In April, two prominent U.S. congressmen addressed a bipartisan letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon about "continued threats" and other mistreatment of RFE/RL journalists and urged Tajik authorities to let RFE/RL's operations "continue unabated" after issues arose over the press accreditations for RFE/RL journalists.
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