A new directive instructing officials to make the state news agency their first choice of channels for giving information to the press could further shrink the small space for independent journalists to operate in the Central Asian country
Authorities in Tajikistan have put new restrictions on the media in the Central Asian country already facing censure for its poor human rights and press freedom record.
Signed by President Imomali Rahmon, the order, not made public by the government but leaked by an exile-run news agency, Ozodagon, requires all official information to be sent to the official Khovar news agency, which will then distribute it to other media outlets.
According to Interfax, the directive applies to information about government meetings, the president and his domestic and international trips, and any meetings attended by Tajik officials at home or abroad.
A presidential adviser told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service that the directive was intended only to help the state-run news agency grow.
“President [Emomali Rahmon] felt that information about the activities of the government and other state institutions should be published efficiently and without any mistakes,” the official said on anonymity.
Zafari Sufi, editor of the information agency Ozadagon, said that perhaps the government made the decision because it was worried that non-official media were publishing incorrect information.
“But this is not the right step, this doesn’t help develop media quality, because media quality can’t develop without media freedom,” he said.
President Rahmon has ruled the former Soviet republic, one of the poorest countries in Asia, since 1992 and has faced regular criticism for his regime’s crackdown on dissent and its tight grip on media. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitution but Rahmon’s administration maintains intense pressure on the country’s handful of independent media. Tajikistan already consistently ranks near the bottom of international ratings for press freedom. Reporters Sans Frontiers has ranked Tajikistan 116th out of 180 countries in its 2015 press freedom report.
According to the Washington-based monitoring group Freedom House, “Investigative reporting is rare in Tajikistan given the difficult conditions faced by journalists. Independent journalists are particularly hampered by a lack of legislation protecting sources. Authorities frequently prevent independent reporters from covering the news, for example by blocking access to official events or barring journalists from taking photographs. Journalists reporting on sensitive issues face threats, attacks, libel suits, and other forms of harassment”.
The new government directive instructing officials to make the state news agency their first choice of channels for giving information to the press could further shrink the already small space for independent journalists to operate in Tajikistan.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of Tajikistan’s National Association of Independent Media, said “the new regulation violates the constitution that guarantees equal access to official information”.
Media expert and lawyer Farrukhshoh Qosimi said the policy ran counter to Tajikistan’s constitution.
“This kind of initiative is designed to strengthen control over the media. This is the same policy we had in Soviet times – keep people in the dark in order to stay in power and to promote the interests and goals of a very small group of people.”
Media analysts in Tajikistan think this policy is restrictive.
Journalists say that now whenever they call or approach an official or a ministry, they are told to send an official letter, and the answer will be posted on Khovar. There is no time limit for when the official should publish the answer.
According to editor of daily newspaper Imruznews, Naziri Nusrat, “Khovar has always had an exclusive right for state information and access to all state offices. But when high echelons of the government then this is problem.”
“In many cases, because the government didn’t give any information to the media, its citizens were left in vacuum. For example, when clashes on Kyrgyz-Tajik border happened on July 6, Tajiks found out about the incident only from Kyrgyz media.”
To Nusrat the new instructions don’t correspond with many other government-initiated policies and procedures.
“What if an official is asked a question during a press-conference? Does he or she also say that the answer will be posted on Khovar? And how about the government’s electronic government project which is aimed at making the government agencies more transparent?,” asks the editor.
Political scientist Rajab Mirzo said: “Independent media should react accordingly and boycott this decision because the government wants only official sources to form people’s thinking. This is not right.”