By Oleg Salimov (07/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The fact that free media in Tajikistan is subjected to persecution was once again confirmed earlier this spring by a Tajik court ruling against the local media outlet Asia-Plus. In June 2014, Asia-Plus submitted a supervisory complaint to Tajikistan’s Supreme Court after its appeal was rejected by the city court of Dushanbe. The Supreme Court is the last authority to decide on the Asia-Plus case. There is little hope that the Supreme Court will annul the previous decrees.
The case, which became known as “Intelligentsia vs Asia-Plus,” was initiated by a group of Tajik intellectual organizations in the summer 2013 and was intended to protect them from a supposed insult published in one of Asia-Plus’s articles. In her editorial column, the author, Olga Tutubalina, criticized the country’s public figures of fawning upon President Rakhmon. However, the intelligentsia was insulted not by the accusation of fawning but by Tutubalina’s citation of Vladimir Lenin, who infamously compared the intelligentsia to waste products. Avoiding expressing her disgust for Rakhmon and his entourage directly, Tutubalina veiled her antipathy to the country’s elite with a metaphor borrowed from the Bolshevik leader. Tutubalina’s article denounced the Tajik intelligentsia as serving as a trumpet of authoritarianism. According to her, the Tajik intelligentsia has abandoned its primary mission of constituting an intellectual driving force of democracy in favor of personal gain.
The central theme of Tutubalina’s article discussed the poet Bozor Sobir’s return to Tajikistan from exile in the U.S.. Sobir was one of the founders of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan and a member of the now non-existing opposition movement “Rastokhez” (the Renaissance), and was personally invited to return by Rakhmon. Tutubalina was indignant with Sobir’s first public statement after his arrival on the superfluous and harmful number of political parties in Tajikistan, including the largest opposition party Islamic Renaissance. To the surprise of many, Sobir openly attacked his former political companions. Previously a vocal proponent of democracy in Tajikistan, Sobir revived himself as Rakhmon’s personal eulogist, autocracy advocate, and the highest appointed leader of Tajikistan’s intelligentsia. Sobir appealed to the Tajik intelligentsia to unite around Rakhmon and provide him with unreserved support.
Although the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Tajik Constitution allows Tutubalina and Asia-Plus to deliver their interpretation of political realities in the country, the government restricts this right through censorship and control of all published materials. In the Asia-Plus case, Rakhmon, acting through the intelligentsia, signals that negative information with reference to the president or government in Tajikistan is unacceptable.
Notably, on the initiative of Tajik National Communication Council in 2012, the government authorized a special unit within Tajikistan’s security services which censors all information about Tajikistan flowing in and out of the country with the purpose of creating a positive image of the current regime. The unit filters online publications, monitors social networking websites, and controls the national mass media. Tajikistan’s public is fed only materials deemed appropriate. The Asia-Plus case is a clear example of the authorities’ information filtering and image-building activities.
The use of influential public figures is the latest invention designed to reinvigorate Rakhmon’s withering image of the country’s “savior” and the current authoritarian style of governing as the only way to ensuring prosperity and stability for Tajikistan. The intelligentsia, including the representatives of four social, scientific, and professional organizations – though not including Sobir, the only intelligentsia representative directly named and addressed in the article – quickly rebounded with a lawsuit against Asia-Plus and Olga Tutubalina. The intelligentsia refrained from protesting their alleged behavior but instead quoted the crude quotation of Vladimir Lenin as an insult.
In February 2014, the district court ruled in favor of the intelligentsia and obliged Asia-Plus and Tutubalina to publish a disclaimer and pay around US$ 6,000 compensation to the plaintiffs. Later, the city court of Dushanbe contended this decision. Concerns regarding the Asia-Plus and Tutubalina case were expressed by Human Rights Watch, the chairman of the guild of Tajik journalists, Tajik human rights and social activists, and the U.S. embassy in Tajikistan. However, none had any apparent effect on the protection of press freedom and freedom of expression. Instead, Tajikistan’s government works zealously to improve and maintain the “appropriate” image of the country’s president and regime.