Freedom of the Press
The government uses restrictive laws, politicized regulation, and extralegal intimidation to curb independent reporting. During the period surrounding parliamentary elections in March 2015, authorities barred journalists from polling places, and state-controlled media denied the opposition access to airtime. The subsequent designation of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) as a terrorist organization in September banned any reporting on the party’s activities. Also during the year, a new amendment to a security law legalized the shutdown of internet and mobile service in certain scenarios—a practice that was already common in the country—and an official directive paved the way for the state news agency to hold a monopoly on reporting official statements.
- The government ordered the temporary blocking of Facebook and other popular social-networking sites in May, apparently to suppress news about a Tajik police commander who had joined the Islamic State militant group in Syria.
- In August, independent journalist Aminjon Gulmurodzoda was sentenced to two years in prison based on claims that he had falsified identity documents in 1989, when he was a small child.
Legal Environment: 26 / 30 (↓1)
Freedom of speech is guaranteed by Article 30 of the constitution, although authorities regularly curtail this freedom in practice. A 2013 media law contains a number of protections for media workers, broadens the definition and rights of a journalist, attempts to limit the formation of media monopolies, and guarantees access to public information. The information provision strengthened Tajikistan’s existing access to information law by reducing the deadline for officials to respond to a request from one month to three days. However, the law is poorly structured, little known by the public, and virtually ignored by officials.
A 2014 amendment to the Law on Emergency Situations empowers the government to limit the use of video recording equipment and mobile and internet networks, and permits authorities to censor mass media in order to “maintain peace” in an emergency. In November 2015, the parliament passed amendments to the Law on Combating Terrorism that similarly allow the government to block internet and telecommunications networks during counterterrorism operations, effectively cutting off media coverage of critical police, military, and security service activity in the country.
A law decriminalizing libel was adopted in 2012, but journalists still face prison terms of up to five years for insulting President Emomali Rahmon and up to two years for other public officials. Under the civil code, journalists face large financial penalties for “moral damage” against a person or entity, and the burden of proving the truth of a published statement rests with the defendant, even if it is an unprovable statement of opinion.
Courts frequently impede journalists by obstructing access to court records and denying reporters from independent media entry to open hearings. The Supreme Court’s September 2015 ruling that the IRPT, the country’s second-largest political party, was a terrorist group starkly demonstrated the judiciary’s political subservience to the executive branch, as did a separate ruling involving a prominent journalist: In August, Aminjon Gulmurodzoda, editor of Faraj.tj.com and former correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, was sentenced to two years in prison on a spurious charge of forgery. He purportedly falsified the date on his birth certificate as a young child to apply for a passport.
Tajikistan’s media licensing committee routinely denies licenses to independent and foreign media outlets or otherwise obstructs the licensing process. No member of an independent media outlet has ever been included in the committee, which retained its closed structure and nontransparent practices in 2015. Although a number of new local radio and television stations began broadcasting during the year, it was unclear how they had obtained licenses. Private applicants from certain regions, including the restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, have consistently been denied media licenses.
Political Environment: 32 / 40
The government actively works to control the media environment, employing various forms of pressure to advance its political interests. Information from official government sources is funneled to government-owned publications and programming. The government issued a directive in June 2015 that instructed officials to give any statements first to Khovar, the state news agency. While the directive did not explicitly ban communications with independent media, it had a chilling effect on officials’ statements to private news outlets.
Censorship is not legally permissible in Tajikistan, but authorities periodically block access to independent social-networking and news websites that host content they deem undesirable. Facebook, VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and YouTube were repeatedly blocked during 2015, in some cases to suppress news in May about a Tajik police commander who had joined the Islamic State militant group in Syria. Several opposition or independent news outlets were also blocked. Internet service providers receive blocking orders from the government’s Communications Service, which is headed by a relative of the president.
Self-censorship remains a serious issue in Tajik journalism. Many journalists publish their work under pseudonyms and rely on anonymous sources due to state pressure to reveal sources for critical or analytical articles. Taboo subjects include the president and his family, the finances of officials, official corruption, territorial disputes with neighboring countries, Islamist militancy and a related crackdown on religious freedom, and events in the eastern autonomous region. While journalists and ordinary users regularly post controversial content about the government on Facebook and other popular social media platforms, the country’s security services are believed to monitor such activity, and social media have been used to threaten or smear journalists.
Reporters do not enjoy freedom of movement in Tajikistan, and those who cover sensitive topics often encounter retaliatory harassment. In the period surrounding parliamentary elections in March 2015, independent journalists were denied access to polling stations and received threatening text and e-mail messages warning them not to write critical stories about the elections or the ruling party. The high-profile case of academic researcher Aleksandr Sodiqov, who was arrested in June 2014 and accused of espionage and high treason after conducting an interview with a local opposition leader in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, continues to have a chilling effect on reporting in the area despite his eventual release that September. Tajik journalists claim that state-run media outlets often carry fabricated content designed to smear them or political opposition figures.
Economic Environment: 25 / 30
In 2015 there were 355 newspapers (253 owned by nonstate entities), 225 magazines (125 nonstate), 35 television stations (19 nonstate), and 24 radio stations (16 nonstate). Most print publications are circulated on an irregular schedule. The broadcast sector is dominated by state-controlled national television stations that praise President Rahmon and deny coverage to independent or opposition points of view, as evidenced during the 2015 parliamentary elections, when several IRPT campaign ads were banned from the air based on technicalities. Several regions in Tajikistan lack access to independent broadcasting.
The country’s ongoing switch from analog to digital broadcasting has led to complaints that many residents cannot afford digital receivers or are otherwise unable to receive the new signals. Electricity shortages also limit overall access to electronic media, and government control over printing and distribution limits the reach of print media. Only about 19 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2015. Widespread poverty, a flagging economy that depends on remittances from migrant workers, a small advertising market, and concentration of wealth in the hands of political leaders and their associates all hamper the emergence of financially robust and independent media outlets.