Accessing official information from Tajikistan's state structures was never an easy task for independent Tajik journalists. Now a new government dictate has made it next to impossible.
On July 16 the exile-run news agency Ozodagon published a scan of a hitherto under wraps state decree dated June 30. The decree had been rumoured as existing since private Tajik news agency Tojnews complained at the end of last month that local officials were citing a “new governmental decree on giving all information only through the state news agency Khovar” as a reason not to talk to the website's reporters.
Khovar, a holdover from the government wires set up in each of the fifteen republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union, already enjoyed preferential access to the state in the Central Asian country's constricted information space. The decree appears to signal the government's intent to force all other media outlets to scrap for the crumbs from its plate.
A section of the decree reads as follows:
…минбаъд ҳамаи хабарҳои расмӣ, маҷлисҳои Ҳукумати Ҷумҳури Тоҷикистон, сафарҳои кории Президенти Ҷумҳурии Тоҷикистон дар дохили кишвар ва хориҷ аз он, маҷлисҳо, вохӯриҳо ва ҷамъомадҳои сатҳи байналмилалӣ, ҷумҳуриявӣ ва соҳавии дахлдор ба воситаи Агентии миллии иттилоотии Тоҷикистон “Ховар” ба роҳ монда шуда, пас аз он барои паъни барнома ва ё иттилоот ба дигар васоити ахбори омма аз ҷониби агентӣ фиристода шавад”.
…furthermore, all official information, meetings of the Government of Tajikistan, the President of Tajikistan's working visits within the country and abroad, international, republican and sectoral meetings should be provided first to Khovar state information agency, and only after that should be sent by the agency to other media.
Independent political analyst Dr. Irshod Sulaymoni called the move:
Қадами бисёр ҷиддӣ барои расидан ба худкомагии беназир!
An important step to reach complete authoritarianism!
‘The ISIS press centre’
Khovar publishes news on its recently revamped website in Tajik, Russian, and English. The platform is known for Soviet-style propaganda news, attacks on the opposition and foreign news, mostly translated from Russian sources.
On Facebook Tajik journalist and founder of the Ormon media group Yoqub Said posted a screenshot from Khovar's latest news cycle, most of which was focused on atrocities carried out by the radical group ISIS thousands of miles away in Iraq and Syria, where government officials claim several hundred citizens are fighting. Critics say secular Tajikistan is using the presence of Tajiks in the two countries as a pretext to crack down on observant Muslims at home.
Yoqub mocked the state agency’s motto “Are you with Khovar? You are informed!” by converting it to “Are you with Khovar? Informed about what?”
Khovar news items on July 6
- Fighters in Hilmand blasted by their own mines
- ISIS’s bomb making factory in Kirkouk destroyed
- The Coalition killed 18 IS fighters
- 20 IS fighters were killed in Anbar
- Two IS self-declared rulers were killed
- 23 Taliban paramilitaries and 1 officer were killed
- Six terrorists were killed in Syria
- IS kidnapped 111 children
- IS fighters killed 3,000 women and children for witchery
Rajab Mirzo, a well-known Tajik journalist and founder of a once-popular independent newspaper shut down by the government over a decade ago, also derided the government's ISIS obsession:
Маркази матбуотии ДИИШ))
[Khovar is the] ISIS press-centre
No bad news please, we are Tajik
State media in post-Soviet Central Asian countries like Tajikistan focuses mostly on good news internally — however local — and bad news from abroad that serves to remind Tajiks how lucky they are to live in a stable autocracy.
A meme from over two years ago widely shared by Tajiks on social media sums up this approach:
Where next for the country's media?
Despite a system rigged in its favour, independent Tajik news websites such as Ozodagon and Asia Plus as well as a broad array of Russian-language news websites have weakened Khovar's audience over time.
One Tajik Facebook user sarcastically remarked:
Минбаъд шояд аз ҳамин роҳ шумори хонандагони “Ховар”-ро аз 53 нафар ба 54 нафар бирасонанд.
[Through this decree] they might be able to increase the number of Khovar readers from 53 to 54.
Another Facebooker criticised independent journalists in the country:
вакте ки бизнесро саркуб мекарданд вао хомуш буд. акнун навбати шумо хам расид
When businesses [in the country] were under attack, the media kept silent. Now it is your turn.
While in the same group discussion a user of the network made a provocative suggestion:
Чавобан ба ин расонахои гайридавлати метавонанд минбаъд хеч хабари расмии марбут ба президент (аз чумла дидорхояш, сафархояш, рохнамоихою хидоятхояш, кайчибурихояш, санги асос гузоштанхояш ва г.) хукумат ва мачлисро мунташир накунанд……
In response, non-governmental media should not publish news related to the President, including his trips, meetings, speeches, opening new buildings, etc., as well as news related to the government and parliament.
Such a reaction seems unlikely in a country where the government holds all the aces and has proven itself capable of shutting down opposition figures, independent media and civil society without inviting revolt.
However, it is unclear whether the latest move against independent media is in either the national interest or the government's interest. After all, if independent media is unable to fulfill its current role in distinguishing real news from state propaganda and street gossip, the space for potentially dangerous misinformation will only grow.