A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
Attacks on press freedom are common in Tajikistan. “Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, independent journalists face harassment and intimidation, and the penal code criminalizes defamation. Crippling libel judgments are common, particularly against newspapers that are critical of the government,” Freedom House said last year. In 2011, a local BBC journalist said he was tortured while in detention.
The state regularly blocks access to independent websites. Most recently, the Tajik service of Radio Liberty’s website has been inaccessible since February 22. Authorities generally say nothing about the frequent blocks, or make excuses that reveal an entrenched parochialism and paranoia.
Last week authorities revoked a newspaper’s license for covering topics that it had not said it would discuss in its charter.
The US Embassy in Dushanbe said the court ruling against Tutubalina and Asia-Plus “will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press in Tajikistan.”