In a country with no daily newspapers and soft-hitting state media outlets, the Internet is where an increasing number of curious Tajikistanis go for news and information. That’s apparently got officials worried.
In recent months, some 50 websites, including independent news portals and the video-sharing platform YouTube, have been blocked in Tajikistan. Though most of the sites were reopened on October 10, the government’s communications service won’t say what’s going on.
The mass blockade started during a violent confrontation this summer between government troops and forces loyal to local warlords in the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region. Authorities in Dushanbe said little about the operation – which is thought to have left about 70 people dead – but they immediately severed telephone and Internet connections with the region and started blocking websites reporting on the conflict. At the same time, state media outlets all but ignored the developments in Gorno-Badakhshan, instead running programs featuring traditional songs and dance.
Long after the violence was over, the restrictions persisted. To raise awareness about government censorship, on October 3 journalists launched a campaign called “100 Days for Internet Freedom in TajNet.” Comprising prominent journalists and civil society activists, the group, in a statement, condemned the blocking of websites without a court ruling as illegal, and warned that the government was becoming an “enemy of the Internet.”
The most prominent figure in this story is Beg Zukhurov, the head of the state communications service, who answers to President Imomali Rahmon. Few are satisfied with his explanations regarding recent government actions. At times, questioned over website blocks, he’s denied knowledge of any official orders; in other conversations, he has said his institution has a “special unit” tracing “black PR agents” that are deliberately slandering Tajikistan. When communications with Gorno-Badakhshan first went down, he suggested that a stray bullet might have taken out the cables.
Earlier in the year, when Facebook was blocked for a week, Zukhurov denied that there had been any order to shut down the site – where, he lamented, people criticize Rahmon. In a move that prompted widespread ridicule, his office then said Facebook was down for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Representatives of two Internet service providers (ISPs) told EurasiaNet.org that they receive their blocking orders by telephone directly from Zukhurov’s office. Failure to comply, they say, can mean losing a license, or an unexpected audit by the tax police. EurasiaNet.org’s repeated attempts to reach Zukhurov for this story failed.
Zukhurov has promised to create a larger office to monitor online publications, without explaining how members would be chosen, or what legal mandate they would have. Reporters Without Borders responded with “profound concern” that “such a system of control could lead to the wholesale blocking of online publications and websites.” The watchdog organization also fears that the system could be abused, noting that the communication service “has regularly targeted the websites of leading independent news organizations,” including Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus.
Asia-Plus, perhaps the most prominent independent news agency in Tajikistan, was blocked in July and became available again in late September. At different times, blocked sites have included the BBC’s Tajik Service, RIA Novosti, and prominent Russian-language news portals. As of October 11, the BBC, RIA Novosti and YouTube were again available on most ISPs.
Nuriddin Karshiboev, the head of the National Association of Independent Media (NANSMIT) and one of the initiators of the 100 Days campaign, told EurasiaNet.org that the government regularly reacts to political uncertainty with Internet restrictions. The same thing happened, he said, during fighting between rebels and the government in the Rasht Valley in 2010. “[Then] the authorities did the same thing. They ordered mobile phone operators to shut down connections, and the Internet providers were advised to block access to important news portals – those covering the clashes between Mullo Abdullo’s rebels and the government,” he said.
At that time, the defense minister said journalists’ criticism of the military operation helped “destabilize” the country.
Parvina Ibodova, head of the National Association of Internet Providers, says Zukhurov’s office has fueled confusion. “Mr Zukhurov is the public official in charge; he should have clarified the situation with an open statement. Regrettably, the government also ignored the situation,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
For their part, officials often insist that independent media should not question the government. On September 24, at an OSCE meeting in Warsaw on human rights, Muzaffar Ashurov, the president’s representative for constitutional and human rights, had stern words for an Asia-Plus correspondent, alleging that the news agency essentially supported the militants in Gorno-Badakhshan. “You write that the government acted incorrectly by using force in Khorog [the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan]. … You are encouraging people … to come out against the government,” he said.
His comments came shortly after Olga Tutubalina, a deputy editor at Asia-Plus, told participants at the OSCE gathering that information blackouts have become Dushanbe’s routine method for dealing with times of trouble. “Almost every time when the economic and political situation worsens in the country, it's accompanied by the blocking of sites and the disabling of [phone] connections,” Tutubalina said. “During the military operation in […] Khorog, the official media didn't even mention it [the events] once. Endless concerts and celebrations were broadcast on state television.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.