Tajikistan’s Freedom of Expression Shrinks

Journalists get lengthy sentences on charges that rights groups say are groundless.

Tajikistan’s Freedom of Expression Shrinks

Journalists get lengthy sentences on charges that rights groups say are groundless.

On October 4, independent journalist and filmmaker Avazmad Ghurbatov, who works with the name of Abdullo Ghurbati, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on dubious charges of using violence, insulting police officers and having ties with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
On October 4, independent journalist and filmmaker Avazmad Ghurbatov, who works with the name of Abdullo Ghurbati, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on dubious charges of using violence, insulting police officers and having ties with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). © Ghurbati's Facebook profile

Two Tajik journalists have been issued lengthy jail sentences and others are awaiting similar judgements in a new clampdown that is fueling self-censorship and limiting further the Central Asian nation’s already restricted media freedoms.

On October 4, Dushanbe’s Shohmansur district court convicted journalist and award-winning filmmaker Avazmad Ghurbatov, who works unde the name Abdullo Ghurbati, to seven and-a-half-years on charges of using violence and insulting police officers, as well as having ties with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

Two weeks later on October 17, the same court sentenced his colleague, the well-known journalist and blogger Daler Imomali, to ten years in prison for running an illegal business, spreading knowingly false information and having ties to the Group 24 opposition movement.

Ghurbati had worked as camera operator on Imomali’s YouTube channel, which covered social issues and citizens’ complaints against authorities and counts nearly 150,000 subscribers.

Both trials were held behind closed doors in the pre-trial detention facilities where Imomali and Ghurbati have been detained since their arrest in June 2022.

The trials of two other journalists, Zavkibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmukhammadzoda, are ongoing behind closed door in the same centre, and activists fear similarly harsh verdicts are imminent.

Saidamini was detained by the police on July 8 in Vahdat, a town 20 kilometres from Dushanbe. He is accused of collaborating with the IRPT and Group 24 and faces a prison term of five to eight years. Blogger Pirmuhammadzoda was arrested the day after on similar charges of extremism that rights group maintain are unfounded.

On October 19, a source close to the investigation against Pirmuhammadzoda handed over a copy of a letter handwritten by the blogger to Radio Ozodi, Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service, in which he reported torture and beatings during interrogations at the police department and the pre-trial detention centre. 

“I was beaten and electrocuted there because I didn’t want to live,” the letter reads.

Participation in extremist organisations carries a five to eight year prison sentence under Article 307(3).2 of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code; calling for extremist activities or justifying extremism online or in the media carries a five to 10 year prison sentence under Article 307(1).

Media have been banned from attending the hearings, and neither the judge nor the defence disclosed any details of the trial or talked to journalist after the verdicts.

Lawyer and human rights activist Shuhrat Qudratov told IWPR that Article 273 of the Criminal Procedure Code requires all court proceedings to be conducted in public. Exceptions are accepted if trial may lead to the disclosure of state classified information or to ensure the safety of witnesses or members of their families.

The judge was supposed to motivate the reasons of the closed-door procedure, but did not, Qudratov stated.

"All charges against them are questionable. That's why trials are held in closed sessions. If the investigating authorities were firmly convinced of the charges against journalists, they would never hold such proceedings behind closed doors,” Qudratov noted.

SELF-CENSORSHIP GROWS

In May 2022, protests reignited in Tajikistan’s autonomous eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), which borders Afghanistan and China and has long been a flashpoint. Authorities struggled to contain the unrest and repressive measures were imposed, including on reporting on the events.

Since then authorities have arrested seven bloggers and journalists - Ulfatkhonum Mamadshoeva, Khushruz Ghulom, Muhammadi Sultan, Abdullo Ghurbati, Daler Imomali, Abdusattor Pirmuhammadzoda, and Zavkibek Saidamini – on a coercive scale unseen in the last decade.

Mazhab Dzhum'a, a reporter from the Asia-Plus News Agency, noted that until early 2015, journalists were relatively free, with several influential private media outlets operating in the country and few topics out of bounds.

In September 2015, Tajik authorities accused then-deputy defence minister Abdukhalim Nazarzoda of attempting to overthrow the government with the assistance of the IRPT and instigated two attacks in the capital and neighbouring Bahdat before fleeing.

The IRPT was outlawed as an extremist organisation and hundreds of Tajiks fled the country, including dozens of journalists. 

Authorities have constantly rejected accusations of restricting media freedom,  stating that the country’s legislation safeguards their work and that 75 per cent of the country’s print media is independent.

Since 2015, however, several professional outlets have stopped operating, including TojNews, Nigoh, and the Ozodagon, the weeklies with the largest circulation and whose coverage of the government was critical. Those who managed to remain afloat were forced to refrain from covering many problematic topics.

In 2015, Reporters Without Borders ranked Tajikistan 116 for freedom of expression; in 2021, the country dropped to 162nd place.

“The horizon of freedom of expression is narrowing day by day,” Dzhum'a told IWPR.

"The arrest of Ghurbati and Imomali also showed that there is a red line on social issues that cannot be crossed... In 2012, it was possible to meet ministers and heads of state committees and talk to them. Now it is impossible to get information even from the most rank-and-file specialist of the institution.”

Ten years on, the prosecutor general’s office issued a warning about covering the events in GBAO, and Asia-Plus stated that it would refrain from reporting from and about the region. Local outlets mostly relayed reports from official bodies.

“Free-thinking journalists covered events truthfully, and this was not in the interests of the ruling authorities," media expert Abdumalik Kadyrov told IWPR, adding that the deteriorationof  the security situation in the region as well as in Russia put pressure on Dushanbe.

“Tajik authorities felt that they were their own masters. When they saw that Russia, their main partner, began putting pressure on the media, they followed suit,” Kadyrov added.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, western countries began to pay more attention to security issues in Central Asia.

"They have turned a blind eye to problems with civil liberties to prevent an escalation of the tensions in Tajikistan as well. The government felt its impunity and things have worsened and come to what we have now,” Kadyrov said.

Human rights organisations have voiced criticisms that the Tajik government has plainly ignored.

Umed Babakhanov, founding director of Asia-Plus Media Group, said that the media was a bridge between society and the government.

“Of course, not all information is pleasing both, but it is always useful,” he told IWPR. “It is like visiting a doctor who diagnoses you and determines your disease. After the disease is diagnosed, he prescribes treatment. Media shed a light on social issues so that the government can act upon them.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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