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Tajikistan Steps Up Attacks On Independent Media To 'Control Public Opinion'

Journalists Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda and Zavqibek Saidamini have been arrested on extremism-related charges they deny.

At least seven Tajik journalists and bloggers have been detained in recent weeks, with some facing up to 15 years in prison on dubious charges of plotting to overthrow the government and participating in extremist organizations.

The arrests are seen by some local experts as the authoritarian government’s attempt to control public opinion in the wake of Dushanbe’s bloody crackdown on protests in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan region in the country’s east.

The latest update on the journalists’ case came on July 19 when police announced that blogger Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda had been charged with publicly calling for extremist activities. If found guilty, he could face up to five years in prison.

Pirmuhammadzoda was detained in his hometown of Vahdat, 15 kilometers east of Dushanbe, on July 9. A day earlier, police in Vahdat arrested independent reporter Zavqibek Saidamini and charged him with participating in an extremist group.

According to prosecutors, the charge stems from Saidamini’s links to two banned opposition parties, the Islamic Renaissance Party and Group 24. He has repeatedly denied supporting any political group.

Saidamini and Pirmuhammadzoda, who are both former employees of the state television and radio company, have been active on various social-media platforms, including YouTube, in recent years.

On June 15, police in Dushanbe arrested the bloggers Daler Imomali and Abdullo Ghurbati, who focus on social and economic issues in the country.

Imomali was charged with having links to banned organizations, tax evasion, and disseminating false information. Ghurbati is accused of assaulting a police officer.

Tajikistan strictly controls the media in the country and shows little tolerance for any criticism of government policies.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, police harassed local journalists for merely questioning health officials who initially insisted there was no coronavirus in Tajikistan despite abundant suspected cases.

The government has also shut down independent media outlets and restricted access to foreign-based Tajik-language online publications.

Tajik police routinely target family members of government critics who live abroad.

Information Blackout

Independent media came under renewed pressure after anti-government protests broke out in Gorno-Badakhshan on May 16, sparking clashes between demonstrators and the security forces.

Authorities said 16 people were killed in the unrest. Other sources reported a much higher death toll.

The government cut off access to the Internet in Gorno-Badakhshan, leaving the remote, mountainous region in an information blackout as security forces carried out what they called antiterrorism operations.

At the height of the crisis, security services arrested three independent journalists who hail from the restive autonomous province over which the government has struggled to exert full control.

Journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva faces up to 15 years in prison for charges that include seeking to overthrow the government.
Journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva faces up to 15 years in prison for charges that include seeking to overthrow the government.

On May 18, prominent journalist and civil activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva was detained and charged with calling for the government to be overthrown.

The Interior Ministry accused Mamadshoeva of taking part in illegal attempts to destabilize the situation in her native Gorno-Badakhshan. She could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Khushruz Jumaev, a blogger from the region, was arrested on May 20 for allegedly calling for a seizure of power by force and other charges.

On his YouTube channel, Jumaev, whose pen name is Khushom Ghulom, mostly focused on nonpolitical topics such as culture and history. One of his reports is dedicated to local languages in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Retired journalist and intelligence officer Mamadsulton Mavlonazarov was taken into custody by his former employer, the State Committee for National Security, on June 16 on extremism-related charges.

Mavlonazarov, known by his pen name Muhammad Sulton, has been active on social media, criticizing the security services and other law-enforcement agencies. Mavlonazarov has also condemned the government’s handling of the protests in his home region.

The exact charges against Mavlonazarov and Jumaev are not known.

Mamadsulton Mavlonazarov, an outspoken government critic, was arrested on extremism-related charges.
Mamadsulton Mavlonazarov, an outspoken government critic, was arrested on extremism-related charges.

Exiled journalist Anora Sarkorova, a native of Gorno-Badakhshan, claimed that police in Tajikistan interrogated her elderly mother and brother over her online articles on the recent protests.

Sarkorova, who is based in Europe, has been highly critical of the government’s crackdown on demonstrations and other alleged rights abuses in Gorno-Badakhshan.

The Government's Narrative

Most of the detained journalists are being held with no access to their relatives, their whereabouts are unknown, and their cases are surrounded by secrecy.

Tajik experts described the arrests as Dushanbe’s attempt to strictly control information and ensure the general public only gets the government’s narrative of events.

“This move shows that authorities want to have public opinion entirely under their control,” said Nuriddin Qarshiboev, the head of Tajikistan’s Association of Independent Media. “But there is no guarantee it won’t backfire. It sparks negative reactions by the international community and harms Tajikistan’s reputation.”

International groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Committee To Protect Journalists, have called on the Tajik government to release the reporters and end its campaign against the free press.

Jamshed Yorov, an exiled defense lawyer, says censorship has always been the Tajik authorities’ way of promoting their own version of events and silencing alternative voices.

The arrests of the journalists and the grave charges against them are likely to push more Tajik reporters into self-censorship.