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“In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – The challenges facing free media in Tajikistan

Article by Anne Sunder-Plassmann and Rachel Gasowski

May 17, 2021

“In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – The challenges facing free media in Tajikistan

The authorities in Tajikistan have taken George Orwell’s words to the letter, as they have increasingly come to regard media outlets and independent journalists who ask probing questions, attempt to promote transparency and create space for public debate as a threat to their hold on power.[1] Government officials frequently invoke painful memories of violence and turmoil during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan to justify restrictions on media and other fundamental freedoms and to emphasise the image of the current regime as a guarantor of stability and national security. The colour revolutions in the former Soviet space and the Arab spring further exacerbated the authorities’ fears of the public exposure of government wrongdoings, corruption or human rights violations, all of which, they are afraid could push societal grievances to a tipping point beyond their control.


During a research mission on media freedom in Tajikistan in November 2019, a human rights activist told us: “When a journalist writes something critical about a government policy the authorities think he is being critical of the entire government. They see him as a traitor even if he is a journalist who goes about his work as a professional and has no ideological agenda at all!”


In today’s Tajikistan journalists have limited possibilities to provide information to the public on issues deemed ‘sensitive’ by the authorities without endangering their own safety or that of family members; to contribute to an informed public debate through news reporting and analysis; and to influence political decision-making. When asked about ‘sensitive’ issues many journalists we spoke to agreed that these included criticising President Emomali Rahmon, his family and their business affairs; the cult of personality; nepotism, corruption and privileges those in power enjoy; and reports about the fate of imprisoned members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), their relatives and IRPT activities abroad.


The muzzling of independent media outlets and journalists that do not toe the Government line forms part of a broader trend of increased authoritarianism in Tajikistan, which followed the banning of the opposition IRPT in 2015 and that has been reflected in increasing pressure on civil society groups and freedom of expression more generally.


Many independent newspapers, electronic media outlets and news agencies such as Khafta, Nigoh, Nuri zindagi, Ozodagon, Paykon and TojNews have had to close down over the past decade for reasons including government interference with editorial policy, excessive tax inspections, and economic challenges. In 2020, the Prague-based news site, that had provided independent media content for four years, discontinued its work after the Supreme Court had added it to the list of prohibited sites in February last year. According to the Court, the news outlet, which had routinely quoted emigrants representing opposition groups such as the banned IRPT and Group-24 (among many other activists, analysts and experts), had offered a platform to “terrorists and extremists”. Those remaining privately-owned Tajikistani media outlets that aim to maintain an independent editorial policy (such as ASIA-Plus and Avesta) and journalists working for international media outlets with offices in Tajikistan such as Radio Ozodi, are forced to negotiate a path between restrictive legislation, pressure from the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) and other government agencies, and the desire to adhere to professional ethics. Most other media outlets are state-controlled and follow the Government line.


Providing information: a risky mission

Many independent journalists we spoke to in Tajikistan told us about their commitment to provide balanced information to the public in order to facilitate an informed public debate on various issues including politics and human rights. Some wished the authorities would see their work as of service to the country, as a way to identify and address societal problems and grievances. “Instead of promoting transparent reporting, the authorities increase the capacity of the State Committee for National Security to spy on citizens in order to understand what’s going on in society”, one interlocutor told us.


The last few years have seen a quickening exodus from Tajikistan of dozens of journalists and editors following the 2015 banning of the IRPT. While some were supportive of the IRPT movement, others were forced into exile as a punishment for their independent reporting. Others face the choice of remaining in the country but giving up their profession or ceding to the demands of the SCNS. Many now make ends meet by doing odd jobs. In this way, Tajikistan lost many of its experienced journalists.


The few independent-minded journalists who continue to work in Tajikistan told us that the atmosphere has changed. Government agencies routinely put pressure on the remaining independent journalists and media representatives and have succeeded in sowing mistrust and dividing the journalistic community. “We used to discuss things in the kitchen in the past, but we don’t trust anyone anymore. If something happens to a journalist the others won’t show solidarity, he can only count on his closest friends”, a journalist told us on condition of anonymity. Most of the independent journalists who talked about the limitations of media freedom in Tajikistan asked us not to publish their names and several journalists and members of their families chose not to meet with us for fear of reprisals.


Local human rights and media groups have repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of independent journalists in Tajikistan and have called on the authorities to bring their practices in line with their international human rights obligations.


Surviving 2020 and new challenges ahead

When we visited Tajikistan in November 2019, there was a sense among independent journalists and media outlets of needing “to survive the next year”, as both Parliamentary and Presidential elections took place in 2020. “We understand that the authorities have all the necessary measures at their disposal to silence us. Many readers are unhappy about self-censorship, but we have to make sure we can survive the period of the elections in 2020”, one journalist said on condition of anonymity.


Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing additional challenges for independent journalists in Tajikistan. Throughout March and April 2020 the Tajikistani authorities denied that the virus had spread to Tajikistan despite media reports and social media accounts indicating that the pandemic was already progressing rapidly across the country. The authorities refuted a transparent approach and rebutted journalists’ questions. On April 18th 2020, Jamshed Shohidon, the Deputy Health Minister, blamed the spike in ‘pneumonia’ cases on exceptionally rainy weather conditions.


Instead of welcoming media reports about the first suspected cases of COVID-19 and using the media as a tool to raise awareness and slow the spread of the virus, the authorities warned the bearers of bad news that they would be “held to account”. On April 24th 2020, a little less than a week before the authorities admitted there were cases of coronavirus in Tajikistan, the Ministry of Health criticised journalists for reporting cases of death with COVID-19 like symptoms. It blamed them for “escalating the situation, leading to conflict and distrust in the Government and the Ministry”, according to a statement posted on the Ministry’s website. The statement concluded with the threat that “any media outlet, private individual or reporter who publishes incorrect and false information about the coronavirus will be brought to account.”


Even after the authorities announced the first officially confirmed infections of coronavirus on April 30th, they continued to blame the media for its coverage of the pandemic. According to the Government news agency, on May 7th 2020, the Prosecutor General’s Office press department warned that “legal measures will be taken against anybody who sows panic in the country”.[2]


Since then, the authorities have continued to play down the scale of the pandemic and the number of officially confirmed deaths has been consistently lower than civil society estimates. During a press conference in January 2021, Justice Minister Muzaffar Ashuriyon stated “that there were no deaths in Tajik prisons as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic”.[3]


After the Presidential elections on October 11th 2020, Emomali Rahmon was re-elected for a fifth term, receiving over 90 per cent of the vote with a turnout of some 85 per cent. According to the Election Assessment Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the elections “took place within an environment tightly controlled by state authorities and characterised by long-standing restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms, including of association, assembly, expression, media, and harassment and intimidation of dissenting voices”.[4] Election observers added that there “was no genuine political alternative offered to voters, with only contrived debate between formal candidates and lack of independent media covering the campaign.”


Unfortunately, the New Year did not bring calm after the storm. In early 2021, pressure has intensified on independent journalists and those defending media freedom.


Methods to silence independent journalism

Although the Constitution of Tajikistan safeguards media freedom, national laws fail to provide sufficient protection to journalists and media outlets and the authorities use an array of methods to keep media outlets on their toes, discourage critical reporting and force journalists into silence or cooperation. These repressive measures have led to a high degree of self-censorship among journalists, deeply regretted by many as diametrically opposed to their core convictions about the role of a journalist.


For example, in order to discourage critical reporting authorities typically refrain from providing journalists with information on issues of public interest that they regard as ‘sensitive’ claiming that the information is ‘secret’, respond with such a delay that the issue is no longer topical, or exclude independent journalists from official press briefings. When journalists tried to obtain official information and clarification in connection with allegations of coronavirus infections last spring, they quickly hit a wall. In a letter to Sirojiddin Muhriddin, the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, dated March 30th 2020, Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), deplored attempts by the Tajikistani authorities to interfere with Radio Ozodi, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service’s coverage of the pandemic, stating that “Officials with the Health Ministry, the Anti-Epidemic Commission, and your own ministry have refused to speak with Ozodi correspondents […] and have excluded them from press briefings.”[5] In another example, ASIA-Plus sent 15 questions about the COVID-19 pandemic to the Ministry of Health on August 7th 2020. Three weeks later, on August 28th, ASIA-Plus received replies to only four of the questions. Among others, the Ministry did not respond to questions of how many patients were hospitalised with coronavirus at the time, how many medical professionals had been infected with coronavirus and how many had died since the beginning of the pandemic.[6]


Licensing requirements for Tajikistani radio and TV broadcasters and accreditation of journalists working for foreign media outlets are frequently used as a tool to put pressure on journalists and media outlets. Local human rights groups and media watchdogs have called on the authorities to abolish the accreditation requirement, which is so often misused to influence media content.  A 2018 law provides that local journalists wanting to cover elections have to obtain an additional permit from the Central Election Committee. In 2020, six Radio Ozodi journalists and several ASIA-Plus journalists were denied the permit on technicalities.


Officials with the SCNS frequently initiate so-called ‘prophylactic conversations’; they invite journalists or representatives of media outlets for a ‘conversation’ without an official summons, urge them to follow a pro-government editorial policy, to refrain from covering certain issues, or to publish materials drafted by the authorities. Warnings to media outlets typically include that failure to comply will lead to a revocation of their media licence and extraordinary tax checks. Threats to fabricate criminal charges or harm family members are also common. Journalists told us that officials were often surprisingly well-informed about their private lives, their families and loved ones and appeared to have meticulously gathered information in order to find effective ways to threaten and scare them into compliance.


Targeting family members is a strategy not only used to put pressure on journalists inside Tajikistan but also to silence those exiled Tajikistani journalists who continue to write about ‘sensitive’ topics from abroad.


Charges contained in the Administrative and Criminal Codes that can be used to punish the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression hang over journalists’ heads like Damocles’ sword. Although in 2012 defamation was partially decriminalised with the repeal of Criminal Code Articles 135 (“defamation”) and 136 (“insult”), Articles 137 and 330 were retained, punishing “public insult or defamation of the President of Tajikistan” and “insult of a public official” by fines or imprisonment of up to five or two years, respectively. In October 2016, amendments to the Criminal Code created a new offence seeking to shield the President from criticism – Article 137, part 1 criminalises “insulting the Leader of the Nation through the media through print, online or other media”, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.[7] These amendments run contrary to international human rights standards, which are clear that public officials should be prepared to tolerate more, rather than less, criticism, given the importance of allowing effective public scrutiny of government actions.


Journalists and bloggers who speak out critically about state policies or practices are also at risk of being charged with articles that are worded so broadly and imprecisely that they grant overly wide discretion to authorities in their interpretation and application, leading to arbitrariness. Examples include provisions relating to restrictions on terrorism and extremism as well as Article 189 which punishes “inciting national, racial, local or religious discord”.


In addition to discouraging the production and publication of critical media reports, authorities also limit their distribution. In recent years several local and foreign media websites have been blocked or completely disabled.[8] Prosecutions and sentences of prison terms for ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ posts that the authorities deemed to be of ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ content have scared internet users and many are believed to have since refrained from accessing, reading and sharing media material for fear of reprisals.



As long as the Tajikistani authorities continue to pursue an authoritarian agenda, fundamental policy change toward strengthened civil and political freedoms including freedoms of expression and media freedom is unlikely. Therefore, it is all the more important that the international community fully uses its leverage through bi-lateral and multilateral channels, e.g. in the framework of any GSP+ negotiations, in order to protect individuals at risk and support Tajikistani human rights and media freedom organisations. International stakeholders should also persistently call on Tajikistan to comply with its international human rights obligations, particularly as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and implement the important recommendations on media freedom that the UN Human Rights Committee issued to Tajikistan in 2019.[9]


For further information, refer to the report ‘The price of silence vs. the cost of speaking out. Media freedom in Tajikistan’, which was published jointly by International Partnership for Human Rights and Article 19 in July 2020.[10]


Anne Sunder-Plassmann and Rachel Gasowski work as human rights researchers and editors at International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). From 1999 to 2014, prior to joining IPHR, Anne worked for Amnesty International as campaigner, then researcher on several countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern European History and Slavonic Studies from Hamburg University. Anne carried out field research on topics including torture, persecution of dissidents, human rights violations affecting LGBT people, domestic violence and the death penalty. Rachel joined IPHR in 2015. Before that she worked as Researcher for Amnesty International, and also for the European Council for Refugees and Exiles. She has experience of researching and writing publications on topics including torture and ill-treatment, prison conditions and juvenile justice, fundamental rights, domestic violence, persecution of human rights defenders and the death penalty.She holds a Russian degree from Bristol University.


[1] As set out in the title of this essay “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

[2] Khovar, Are you not provided with the necessary medical care? Are prices for medicines increased in pharmacies? Call the General Prosecutor’s Office of Tajikistan, May 2020,

[3] Sarvinoz Ruhullo and Amriddin Olim, Head of the Ministry of Justice: not a single case of death from COVID-19 in the prisons of Tajikistan was recorded, Radio Ozodi, February 2021,

[4] OSCE ODIHR, Republic of Tajikistan – Presidential Election 11 October 2020, ODIHR Election Assessment Mission Final Report,

[5] RFE/RL, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly’s Letter to Tajik Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirojiddin Muhriddin, March 2020,

[6] ASIA-Plus, How much did Tajikistan spend on the fight against COVID-19, September 2020,

[7] The title of ‘Leader of the Nation’ was conferred on President Rahmon in December 2015 and is a life-long title.

[8] For example, in recent years the websites of news outlets ASIA-Plus and Radio Ozodi, of social media and online platforms such as Facebook, Viber, Instagram and Youtube have been arbitrarily blocked on several occasions. At the time of writing the sites of ASIA-Plus, Avesto and Radio Ozodi were fully or partially blocked in Tajikistan.

[9] UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the third periodic report of Tajikistan, 22 August 2019,

[10] IPHR, The price of silence vs. the cost of speaking out, Media freedom in Tajikistan, July 2020,

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