It’s rare the West has anything nice to say about the state of press freedom in Tajikistan. But this week, Dushanbe got some deserved praise.
On May 31, the lower house of parliament unanimously approved the president’s March proposal to remove libel and insult from the criminal code, and make them administrative offenses carrying fines but no jail time. The senate and the president must still approve the change.
“I welcome President Emomali Rakhmon’s initiative and the Parliament’s subsequent steps to decriminalize defamation. Once implemented, they will help safeguard freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Tajikistan,” said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović.
Tajik prosecutors regularly use libel charges to silence critical journalists, selectively interpreting legal provisions as necessary, says Freedom House. “Independent journalism has been marginalized” under Rakhmon, the watchdog wrote in its latest report on press freedom in Tajikistan. Moreover, “journalists who criticize authorities or expose government corruption continue to report threats and intimidation.” Last month, a television presenter in Dushanbe was attacked and hospitalized shortly after announcing a new project to report on cronyism and corruption.
In a trial last fall, Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov, who was likened to Robin Hood for shining a spotlight on high-level corruption, faced 16 years in prison for insulting officials, defamation, and inciting ethnic tensions. After an international outcry and 11 months in prison, he was convicted, ordered to pay about $7,200 in damages to the officials he allegedly insulted, banned from journalism for three years, and released. In another recent case, a BBC journalist faced three years in prison for alleged extremist activity when it seems all he did was report on an Islamist movement. He was convicted, fined and, also apparently thanks to international pressure, released under amnesty.
The change to the criminal code may ease the work of Tajik journalists. But they will need to remain cautious. Once Rakhmon signs the new legislation, as he is expected to do, it will remain illegal to insult (criticize?) the president himself, a charge carrying up to five years in prison.