Authorities in Tajikistan have blocked access to Facebook and several Russian-language news websites, apparently trying to stem mounting online criticism of long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon. Since the uprisings across the Arab world in the past year, which authorities throughout Central Asia blame on social networks such as Facebook, the former Soviet region's autocrats have stepped up Internet restrictions, while citizens increasingly turn to social networks to discuss their frustrations.
The latest crackdown reportedly began after a website called Zvezda.ru published a withering critique of Rakhmon entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of Revolution,” which argued the president is “incompetent” and presides over a corrupt regime where his family has gained control over every state asset down to the last telephone pole. The article predicts mass unrest. “Rakhmon’s regime has lead the country to complete devastation, ruin and terrible poverty,” wrote Sergey Strokan, a staffer with the heavyweight Russian daily Kommersant.
Two Internet service providers (ISPs) told Reuters on March 3 that the state-run communications agency ordered the shutdown. "This morning, we carried out the instruction of the communications service and blocked the sites Facebook.com, Tjknews.com and Zvezda.ru," Reuters quoted one of the providers, who requested anonymity, as saying. "We could not refuse to carry out this instruction."
Tjknews.com had reposted the Zvezda.ru critique. Centrasia.ru – a Russian-language aggregator that has been known to alter reprinted content to make it more critical of Central Asian regimes – was already blocked. Some reports have contended that Fergananews.com, formerly Ferghana.ru, has been blocked, but an Internet user in Dushanbe tells EurasiaNet.org that is not the case.
Facebook has enjoyed a spike in popularity in Tajikistan in the past year. According to Facebook’s own statistics, the site currently has 29,080 users registered as based in Tajikistan. They are a small but active group. Last July, EurasiaNet reported on young people’s use of Facebook to organize group activities, including Tajikistan’s first known flash mob, and lead critiques of government policy that later trickle into the local press.
The latest blockings come on the heels of concerns that Dushanbe is trying to squeeze out private communications companies. On Friday, the Asia-Plus news agency published an open letter to the president from ISPs and mobile phone operators complaining about a sudden increase in their tax burdens, which they fear will force many operators to shut down.
Some analysts warn that the Facebook blockade could backfire on the president.
"I think our elite, which is a prisoner of the Russian informational hostage pit, started believing in the Russian media’s fairy tales that social networks are the source of ‘orange’ revolutions. I am deeply convinced that is not the case,” analyst Saimuddin Dustov told Asia-Plus, referring to the uprising that toppled Ukraine’s leadership during the winter of 2004-2005. The communications agency, “being poorly educated, bought into this, and the president’s security advisers are not competent enough to convey to him what enormous damage this step could do to Tajikistan’s image and the image of the president himself.”
Asia-Plus has not been able to get comments from any government officials on the blockade (it is still the weekend), but does provide a helpful video on how to use a proxy server to access a blocked site.