Tajikistan, An Open Country?

By Abbas Djavadi – In his analysis of Central Asia published in Foreign Affairs, Charles William Maynes, President of the Eurasia Foundation, wrote that Tajikistan is «more open» than all other Central Asian countries. Other sources describe this mainly mountainous, small country of six million people as a «limited pluralism» with «low-level instability.»

After all, exceptional to other Central Asian countries, the Tajik government of President Emomali Rahmonov signed a peace agreement with the country’s Islamists in 1997 and included some of them, though reluctantly and less than what he promised, in his government. Since then, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan is a legally recognized party with a newspaper published in the capital Dushanbe. The same happened to the Tajikistan Democratic Party, another group previously aligned with the Islamists, that received a smaller share of government positions given to Mr. Rahmonov’s former foes.

In today’s Tajikistan you are usually not persecuted, arrested, or tortured for simply being a sympathizer of political parties, groups, or clans outside the government. The only exceptions seem to be the radical militant Islamist group of Hizb-ut Tahrir that has declared seeking an Islamic Caliphate for the whole Central Asia and the remnants of the armed opposition supporting the former government commander Mahmud Khudayberdiev and the former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojonov. Otherwise, you may be a supporter of the loyal Islamists, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party; you may be working in NGO’s or social groups advocating press freedom and women’s rights and generally live in peace. You may also be a correspondent for Western press or broadcast organizations and report, though carefully, on current and even sensitive issues. Usually they would not come after you.

The rulers were chosen somehow some years ago. Many things can change but citizens do not enjoy the right to change the government. The establishment of President Emomali Rahmonov governs Tajikistan since 1992. Following the breakout of the Tajik civil war, Mr. Rahmonov was elected as the head of the Supreme Council, de facto acting as a president with all powers. 1994, in the course of the civil war and in absence of legally recognized political parties, he let himself elect president in a vote considered as widely rigged. 1999, after signing an agreement with the Islamists and incorporating some of them into his government, he was re-elected president in an again unchallenged vote, this time after a ‹referendum› that changed the term of presidency from two terms of each five years to one term of seven years. The parliamentary elections of 2000 made sure that his ruling party receives absolute majority, able to change the constitution and to direct and manipulate any election results.

Since the 1997 peace agreement and the relative relaxation of the restrictions on political parties, all but the allied Communist Party and the former opposition parties of the Islamists and the Democrats were denied registration and their media outlets were closed. Even the new Islamist and democratic allies had to fight with exhausting hurdles to get only two out of 63 seats in the lower house of the parliament. Now that Mr. Rahmonov’s current, seven-year-term heads to its end in 2006, his parliament plans to again change the term of presidency from once for seven years to two terms of each seven years, allowing Mr. Rahmonov to remain in power until 2020.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rahmonov has fired many and kept some of his former foes in certain government positions. Some of these positions are rather formal, with none or very little authority. They grant the position holders immunity and protection and leave them free hand to go after their private business. Other positions considered as ‹fat food› bring benefits, including bribes, to their holders, as is the case with most of other positions in the country. Generally, personal and clan interests dominate over party or ideological affiliations. Even the ruling People’s Democratic Party does not play any role in the political life of the country or in keeping the establishment together or functioning. The power structure is a pyramid with the president at the top and individuals interconnected through hierarchical bounds of clan, subordination, friendship, and region. After the 1997 peace accord, the establishment agreed to accept into this pyramid a few foreign elements, those formerly fighting the government with arms. Most of them joined the establishment practically as individuals and not as representatives of their political groups, thus forging their own interests even, at times, in contrast to those of their political groups.

Seeking and using politics and government positions primarily, if not exclusively, for private and business benefits, along with lack of the public’s participation and transparency in the government’s work have led to frustration in the wider population. ‹Everybody is after his own interests,› they say. ‹They won’t let you into the game anyway and you can’t change anything.› Under extremely pressing survival conditions, people prefer to look for their own lives and to avoid jeopardizing their minimal safety and well being.

The same rules and conditions apply to newly emerging independent, let alone state-run media. Tajik journalists talk more of self-censorship rather than direct and open interference by government sources. Self-censorship originates from fears that journalists might lose their jobs or face threats to their and their relatives› safety. The level of fear depends on the status of the media journalists work for. While those working for state-run media are very much fearful of losing their jobs and paychecks in case of any disobedience, those working for independent media outlets could face indirect pressure. Owners of newspapers and radios would be asked to fire those journalists in order to save their businesses.

In a recent incident, the head of the Dushanbe Radio’s news department was fired for allowing the broadcast of a citizen’s complaint that city authorities are ignoring the president’s order to solve the natural gas supply in the cold days of last November.

Journalists working for Western organizations including RFE/RL or BBC are understandably freer in their work because they do not depend on Tajik local wages and because of the appearance that they have the backing of Western countries or organizations. Usually they may question official policies or take interviews with opposition figures. But they are also bound, to some extent, to the will of individual government bodies and authorities.

A few months ago, Tajik authorities threatened to cancel the accreditation of the chief of the RFE/RL Dushanbe bureau, who had quoted sources close to the government to report about planned ministerial changes before the changes took place. Prior to that, authorities threatened to close down RFE/RL Dushanbe bureau because Prague staff had broadcast interviews with representatives of an exiled opposition group that is accused of planning to overthrow the government through armed rebellion although the interviews were accompanied by official comments on the group’s claims.

Any materials directly criticizing the president belong to the taboos in Tajikistan’s media environment. There are other, feared individuals such as the influential mayor of Dushanbe, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, or a dozen of warlords of both government and the Islamic opposition who protect themselves from any critical reporting because journalists are terrorized by the (not documented, but apparantly realistic) suspicion that they or their relatives might pay for these reports with their very safety and even lives.

Nevertheless, Western observers and human rights organizations note a relative improvement of press freedom in Tajikistan in the last few years. They especially point to the broadcast license for Dushanbe’s first independent radio, AsiaPlus, and the «presidential amnesty» for the exiled opposition journalist Dodojon Atoulloev, the editor of the Moscow-based newspaper Charogi Rooz. Most recently it was reported that Mr. Atoulloev plans to publish his disputed newspaper in Dushanbe.

Asked about press freedom, Tajik authorities proudly say that more than 230 newspapers and magazines are currently published in Tajikistan. This is true but it does not reflect the full picture of Tajikistan’s reality. There is not a single daily newspaper in Tajikistan. Most of these publications are state-owned. All of state-owned and most of the non-governmental papers are printed in Dushanbe’s state-owned publishing house and thus subject to arbitrary cancellation of printing. Most of these publications are Soviet-style, one-sided, pro-government and boring. Most of non-governmental papers are either loyal to the government or tabloid with non-political contents. Newly emerging independent newspapers are forced to loyality or non-political corner.

The same applies to the electronic media. Tajik authorities finally approved the registration of Dushanbe’s first independent radio, AsiaPlus, that runs more music and entertainment than carefully selected information. There is no independent TV station in the capital. Other regions, especially the northern province of Sughd, have a few independent TV stations that are basically commercial with a lot of advertisement, Indian or Russian movies, and occasionally news basically picked up from the state news agency. Only recently some private radio and TV stations have started to use Western information sources on international (and clearly not Tajik) developments. Also recently, the US-funded Internews Agency has started to provide Tajik media with broadcast-ready features in Tajik language.

Some observers note that Tajikistan’s Constitution and law on mass media, in spite of their serious need for improvement, leave some considerable room for the operation of free mass media. But, they add, the implementation of the current legislation faces serious and arbitrary hurdles. Recently, the OSCE, to which Tajikistan is a participating member state, reviewed the country’s legislation with respect to freedom of expression and media. An OSCE meeting in Dushanbe made concrete suggestions to improve the laws governing the operation of mass media in the country, including issuance and termination of licenses, broadcast media licensing, and the independence of the body to control and impose sanctions. It is unclear if the Tajik government will be receptive to those suggestions and, if so, how the implementation of the existing and new laws could be guaranteed.

Compared with neighboring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, Tajikistan can easily rank as «more open» with regard to media freedom. But it is still very «Central Asian» compared to many other former Soviet countries such as Russia or even Azerbaijan. Dushanbe has a long way to go to reach Moscow, let alone Riga or Tallin. It is unfortunate that, on its own, Tajikistan will hardly be willing or able to manage the transition to what we in the West consider widely or generally open and free. But it is fortunate that the Tajik government is not completely closed to efforts by Western organizations and countries pressing for more. Western media organizations› operations inside the country are considered as not only basic for providing the information the Tajiks miss and need, but also a model for local media, a means to compare with, if not a tool to indirectly put some constructive pressure on the government to change. Much will also depend on the help, work, encouragement and occasionally pressure coming from individual Western countries and influential international organizations such as OSCE.

(First published Apr 4, 2003 on RFE/RL website)