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Tajik Government Stakes Out Expanded Power Over Media

Tajikistan launched two new TV channels -- Varzish and Cinama -- in Dushanbe in March.
Tajikistan launched two new TV channels -- Varzish and Cinama -- in Dushanbe in March.

Tajikistan's government has quietly asserted the right of authorities to control the content of both state-run and privately owned broadcasters in a move that appears aimed at tightening officials' already firm grip on news and mass media.

A five-year decree made public this week on "guidelines for the preparation of television and radio programs" stipulates that the government -- through a state broadcast committee -- has the right to "regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership."

The decree, which urges Tajik journalists to promote national interests, describes its aim as providing the post-Soviet Central Asian nation of more than 8 million with "impartial information."

But it has prompted criticism that it provides the authoritarian government in Dushanbe with more power to censor independent media.

“It’s a negative development in terms of freedom of speech, in terms of political development of the country,” says Edward Lemon, a researcher at the University of Exeter in Britain.

Lemon, who specializes in Tajik affairs, says the new regulation gives the government a “greater right to monopolize information and make sure everything fits with it representation of political, economic, and social reality.”

National culture, education, and healthy lifestyles are among topics that should be covered regularly, under the decree.

But such obligatory content also includes the "propagation...of government policies in the socioeconomic and culture spheres, as well as in the fields of art, education, science, and sports."

The decree cites the need for the “regular monitoring and review” of TV and radio programs by a special commission -- the so-called Arts Council -- within the TV and radio committee.

Some Tajik journalists have likened the Arts Council to the Soviet-era Glavlit, the infamous General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press that controlled content among media outlets.

Saymuddin Dustov, a founder of an online publication and a news website, condemned the decree as “more censorship” by the state.

Dustov called on authorities to cancel the regulation, saying it contradicts laws on media freedoms.

Zafar Abdulloev, a Dushanbe-based independent media analyst, speculated that the decree “won't change much” because censorship and self-censorship are already widespread among Tajik media.

The Tajik government has been widely criticized for restricting media freedoms and stifling independent media outlets.

Tajikistan has consistently been rated Not Free by Freedom House, including in that U.S.-based watchdog's 2016 annual report.

The Freedom House report noted that Tajikistan’s “authorities continued to arbitrarily limit free speech, access to information, and the right to civic organization in 2015.”

Tajikistan was recently ranked 150th out of 180 states in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual index, slipping 34 places from the previous year.

RSF said that Tajikistan has eliminated political opposition and is stepping pressure on the remaining independent media “on the pretext of combating terrorism.”

“Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent,” RSF said in April 2016, referring to frequent blocking of Facebook, YouTube, and independent news websites.

Researcher Lemon called the latest regulation “another symbolic move to say that no one can oppose the government and media can’t criticize the government.”

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.