As Tajik authorities celebrate their success disarming rebels in the restive mountainous east, their tight control over information from the region is fostering skepticism that all is rosy in Gorno-Badakhshan.
Nationwide, authorities are blocking more websites every few days, while telephone and Internet connections with the province remain erratic.
As of August 2, Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti, Vesti.ru, BBC Russia and YouTube were not accessible, along with a handful of other Russian-language news sites. Authorities have also continued their blockade of Asia-Plus, perhaps the country’s largest and most influential independent media outlet.
Fighting in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan, left at least 48 dead between July 24 and 26, including, officially, one civilian. But reports continue to trickle out of anywhere between 15 and 100 civilian casualties. Stories of Tajik soldiers committing atrocities against civilians are also beginning to surface.
The blackout makes those reports harder to confirm or deny. (Cell phone connections with Khorog are still down, some landlines have been restored and some Internet users in the town are able to use landlines to connect, but their access is intermittent.) The information vacuum is spreading confusion and forcing concerned Tajiks to rely on rumors, which include some outrageous claims not worth reprinting.
"Maybe things in Khorog aren't going as well as they claim, and they don't want anyone to know about it," Zebo Tadjibaeva, executive director of Asia-Plus, told the Wall Street Journal on August 1.
In the government press, predictably, all is good in Khorog. Mothers are sending their thanks to President Emomali Rakhmon for resolving the conflict and forgiving their sons. Hundreds of weapons have been collected. Rebels have been amnestied.
Internet users in particular have been finding one official story so hard to believe that they wonder about the others: The head of the state communications agency, Beg Zukhurov, said last week that communications links to Gorno-Badakhshan had been cut by a stray bullet. One user in Dushanbe told EurasiaNet.org that “only a clown would expect us to believe such ridiculous explanations.” Many likewise mocked Zukhurov’s justification for blocking Facebook earlier this year, when he said it was down for “prophylactic maintenance.” In June, Zukhurov also blocked Asia-Plus after some users left comments critical of the Rakhmon regime.
A representative of an Internet service provider told EurasiaNet.org that his company receives “verbal orders every day” to block sites. For personal Internet use, many say they use proxy servers to access blocked sites.
Asia-Plus wrote August 1 that it has given up trying to negotiate with Zukhurov’s office. Tadjibaeva, the director, says Zukhurov has repeatedly broken his promise to inform the news agency of upcoming blockages.
“As far as we know, the decision to block websites is made by courts, not by a specific ministry,” Tadjibaeva wrote on the site. The blockade is also hurting the publication financially, she said. “Most importantly, blocking sites deprives people of the right to free access to information, a right enshrined in the Constitution of Tajikistan.”
The Wall Street Journal article highlights what many observers believe, that the battle in Khorog was over control of drug smuggling routes. The “narcotics business enjoys protection at the highest levels of the Tajik government,” the newspaper cited Western officials as saying. That message will come as no surprise to Tajiks, even if the Journal is the next to be blocked.