Wednesday, 27 February 2002

THE TAJIK “SCOOP BOOM”

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By Lola Gulomova (2/27/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In recent months, the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, has been experiencing something extremely unusual, a flood of journalists arriving to the city. On the way to Afghanistan, once again a center of attention of global politics, reporters stopped by the hundreds in this forgotten mountain city to prepare the last logistics and documentation for their journey.

By mid-October, more than 3,000 foreign journalists had arrived in Dushanbe, generating the highest revenue stream to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the ten years of Tajikistan’s independence.

In recent months, the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, has been experiencing something extremely unusual, a flood of journalists arriving to the city. On the way to Afghanistan, once again a center of attention of global politics, reporters stopped by the hundreds in this forgotten mountain city to prepare the last logistics and documentation for their journey.

By mid-October, more than 3,000 foreign journalists had arrived in Dushanbe, generating the highest revenue stream to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the ten years of Tajikistan’s independence. The Central Bank faced an unexpected shortage of U.S. Dollars, which resulted in a short devaluation of the Tajik Somoni, the national currency introduced on Tajikistan’s Independence Day, two days before September 11 tragedy.

As there are no private hotels, most of the Soviet-built hotels in Dushanbe were full of guests. The center of the journalist community is undoubtedly the Hotel Tajikistan.  In this Soviet-style hotel where hot water runs only two hours a day early in the morning, correspondents spent days and nights waiting for means of transportation to their final destination to the South. The availability of beer and other alcoholic beverages made the hotel more bearable for journalists. Reporters were concentrated in one place and stuck together, trusting no source of information except the BBC. However, another center soon developed: the only Indian restaurant in the city, where foreigners tired of Tajik meals rushed to eat something different.

The city of Dushanbe had gone through slow but positive changes in the two years prior to the arrival of its unexpected visitors. A large number of local bars, karaoke and billiard places have opened and stay open late at night, giving this city torn by civil war some kind of a night life.  Many Tajiks take advantage of this by spending their money on games and meals rather than on Kalashnikovs and pistols, as was the case a few years ago.  However, these changes passed unnoticed by the journalists, most of whom had no idea of the existence of Tajikistan prior to September 11 attacks.

In the short run, the journalist flood created jobs, especially for would-be drivers and interpreters. These could be seen especially around the three most important places in the city, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Afghanistan, and Hotel Tajikistan.  Operating twelve hours a day without holidays, the press department of the MFA provided all means for journalists to go to Afghanistan.  One official noted that the flood of journalists provided MFA with revenues unseen in its ten years of operation since the Soviet collapse.  Like the MFA, the Afghan Embassy was very pleased by crowds of people waiting outside and inside of the building.  Around these places, crowds of drivers and interpreters were wandering around waiting for the next short-term job opportunity.  

One of the ways to get to Afghanistan was a convoy organized by the MFA twice a week.  The convoy left Dushanbe in the early morning and arrived at the Afghan border at Farkhor eight hours later.  The MFA requested the Ministry of Interior to provide assistance in delivering the convoy safely, as the traffic police along the route hassled the drivers asking for bribes. Having reached the border, the reporters crossed the river in order to reach Khoja Bahauddin in Afghanistan.

Among the population of Dushanbe, the reporters soon gained a reputation of drunkenness and of being robbed by prostitutes. Several serious cases around Hotel Tajikistan forced the local police to patrol the area. In a particularly celebrated case, one half-naked journalist was seen climbing from one third-floor balcony to another, accompanied by a prostitute. Complying with Central Asian hospitality, the locals referred to the visitors as guests – requiring the obligation to take the guest’s will as law, making it easier to ignore their partying behavior. 

Unlike the foreign press workers, the Tajik government and the United Front of Afghanistan demonstrated both willingness and readiness to provide means and resources for stories about the region’s problems and crises.  Seeing an opportunity that could shed light on the country’s problems and bring them to the attention of international readers, the government welcomed and opened doors to the media.  However, very few members of the news press took advantage of this opportunity.  Having their eyes fixed on Afghanistan, reporters hardly tried to learn much about Central Asia.  Leaving potentially interesting stories behind, the correspondents were rushing into nowadays-popular Afghanistan. This was clearest in October 2001, which  was a quiet month as little fighting took place in northern Afghanistan.  It was not uncommon in Dushanbe to hear of instances where journalists had paid Northern Alliance fighters to stage fake shootings for the cameras of journalists desperate for shooting action.

Meanwhile, there were many problems in Central Asia that deserved the attention of the world media.  The economic, political and social aspects of the Central Asian countries are complex and interrelated with those of Afghanistan. Poverty and the lack of economic opportunities are the main reasons for religious extremism in the Fergana valley, which is noted by researchers as a potential are of future conflict.  Four years of drought has killed almost all crops in the region, putting an estimated one million people at the danger of starvation.  Furthermore, political problems are rising among the regional states, as they refuse to enter into genuine cooperation.  In the final analysis, the last few months have made the culture of freelance media reporters, otherwise called “adrenalin junkies”, familiar to the population of Dushanbe. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. 

Lola Gulomova

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