As Tajikistan prepares for a presidential election in late autumn, domestic political considerations are taking precedence over concerns about the Central Asian country's international image, a fact underscored by the government's recent rejection of the British Broadcasting Corp's application for a broadcasting license.
Tajikistan's state licensing commission formally denied the BBC a license in early August, basing its decision on a complex interpretation of Tajik law. Barakatillo Abdulfaizov, secretary-general of the country's licensing commission, said the BBC failed to meet criteria outlined under Article 12 of the 2005 law On Licensing Certain Types of Activities. The legislation states that the "broadcasting of foreign media on the territory of Tajikistan is possible only on the basis of a bilateral inter-state agreement in the media sphere." Abdulfaizov insisted that such a pact was lacking in the BBC's case.
The interpretation seems awkward, given the fact that Tajik authorities in June sanctioned the operation of a BBC news bureau in Dushanbe. Thus, the BBC can legally gather information in the country, but not broadcast it to Tajiks. Abdulfaizov explained the discrepancy, saying that Tajik authorities consider the BBC bureau to be merely an extension of the London-based broadcaster, and not a legally independent entity.
The ruling is further complicated by the fact that the BBC had been legally broadcasting Tajik-language programming in the country since 1996, originally on a medium-wave band, and after 2004, also on FM frequencies in Dushanbe and in the northern city of Khojand. An agreement between the BBC and Teleradiocom, an entity connected with the Tajik Ministry of Communications, provided the legal basis for the BBC's broadcasts. But the adoption of the new legislation in 2005 terminated the BBC-Teleradiocom agreement, forcing Bush House to apply for a new license. The BBC has been unable to broadcast on FM frequencies in Tajikistan since January.
International free-speech organizations have denounced the licensing decision. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that the ruling constitutes "another alarming attempt by [President Imomali Rahmonov's] regime to prevent people from hearing news from foreign media and independent sources." Meanwhile, Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, characterized some Tajik government actions as "arbitrarily and unilaterally imposed."
The law On Licensing Certain Types of Activities is not only being used to prevent foreign broadcasters from operating in Tajikistan, but also to severely restrict independent Tajik media outlets, observers say. Provisions contained in the law create significant obstacles for the registration of new radio and television channels. For instance, the law gives the licensing commission responsibility determining whether independent media outlet employees meet professional standards. Such standards are left open to interpretation, however.
Many entities that have applied for licenses in recent months are unqualified, claimed Abdulfaizov, the licensing commission chief. He characterized most applicants as "irrelevant people" and "incompetent guys who know nothing about the [broadcast media] business."
Given the approaching presidential vote, along with 2005's political turmoil in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Tajik government appears determined to maintain a tight hold on the distribution of information, and thus ensure the desired election outcome another presidential term for Rahmonov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Despite the fact that US influence has rapidly eroded in Central Asia, Tajik authorities continue to perceive Washington as intent on fomenting radical democratic change. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A reflection of this concern is found in a provision of the 2005 law that forces Tajik media outlets to disclose fully all sources of foreign funding.
The Tajik government appears to be considering additional measures that would further restrict the ability of independent outlets to function. In June 2006, the Ministry of Culture announced a plan to amend two Laws -- On Printing And Other Media and On The Publishing Business. The main thrust of the draft amendments is a requirement for all non-state media outlets to receive new licenses from the Culture Ministry.
Deputy Culture Minister Amirkhon Ahmadhonov denied any political motive behind the draft amendments, saying the proposed changes would enable media outlets to operate more efficiently. Independent journalists, on the other hand, expressed skepticism about the amendments' supposed benefits. They instead believe the government is "tightening the screws" in advance of the presidential vote, and voiced an expectation that a significant number of existing independent outlets would end up being denied re-registration. Nuriddin Karshiboev, chairman of the National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan, said the amendments, if implemented without the involvement and participation of the independent media representatives, would contradict the principles of democracy.