Authorities in Tajikistan appear to have lifted their weeklong ban on the social networking site Facebook.
Users in Dushanbe say they have been able to access the site again on March 10. The Asia-Plus news agency reports that the government Communications Service verbally told Internet service providers (ISPs) they could restore access to the site late on March 9. Several news websites remain inaccessible.
Earlier in the week, Asia-Plus published a letter from the head of the Communications Service, Beg Zukhurov, ordering the blockage. Zukhurov denied the site was blocked, saying it was down for “prophylactic maintenance” and that access would be restored. But few believed him because he used the occasion to lash out at journalists who defame “the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities,” and said authors of such content should be made “answerable.”
The kerfuffle over Facebook began late on March 2 when, apparently reacting to an article severely criticizing Tajikistan’s long-serving president, Emomali Rakhmon, authorities blocked the site where it originally appeared, Zvezda.ru, and three others, along with Facebook. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the “worrying development” and urged Dushanbe to restore access to the sites. “Despite occasional blocking of certain websites in Tajikistan, Internet has remained largely free,” the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, said.
Throughout the week, users were able to access Facebook through proxy servers. Moreover, at least one ISP reportedly never followed the Communications Service order.
Facebook use has exploded in Tajikistan over the past year, though still only a relatively small number of citizens have access to the Internet. Throughout Central Asia, authorities have responded nervously to what they see as the potential “Arab Spring effect” of social networks. But this week’s mini-scandal adds to a list of embarrassing episodes for Rakhmon, brought on by overzealous officials who believe they’re protecting the president’s reputation.
In a step that may be positive for Tajikistan’s media, on March 10 Rakhmon pledged to alter legislation to make “slander” and “insult” – charges often used to silence journalists in Tajikistan – administrative rather than criminal offenses, Avesta reports. He made the promise during a speech to journalists to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Tajik newspaper. It is unclear how that will affect the punishment for those crimes, and if journalists will continue to be charged with extremism for reporting on Islamic movements.