Condemning Tajikistan’s systematic censorship of independent journalism, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the release of four reporters who recently received sentences ranging from seven to ten years in prison for supposed links with extremist organisations simply because they covered “sensitive” subjects that bothered the authorities.
“These disproportionate sentences, announced one by one since the start of October, sound the death knell for independent journalists who still dare to express themselves in Tajikistan,” RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said. “The Tajik authorities must stop maintaining a climate of fear that effectively bans the media from taking a critical look at the government. And they must release these journalists.”
The four journalists shared a desire to practice their profession freely in Tajikistan. Two of them – Avazmad Gurbatov – who is better known by the pseudonym of Abdullo Gurbati , a correspondent for the independent Asia-Plus news agency, and Daler Imomali, a freelance investigative reporter – were arrested in June for investigating the arbitrary demolition of homes in the capital, Dushanbe, at the government’s behest. The other two, Zavkibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmukhamadzoda, are reporters and bloggers who used to work with them. They were arrested in July after publicly supporting them. Their fate has continued to be linked in prison. What with torture, terrorism charges, forced confessions and secret trials, their cases are textbook examples of the repressive methods used by President Emomali Rakhmon’s government to silence all criticism.
Despite the gravity of charges brought against them, the journalists have constantly denounced the government’s draconian practices and tried to assert their rights. Such is the case with Imomali, who was sentenced on 17 October to 10 years in prison on charges of illegal commercial activity, spreading false information, and participating in an extremist organisation. In a letter written in his cell, addressed to the media and the president, Imomali said he had been the victim of an investigation and trial that was rigged from the start, and he appealed to “everyone, dear media representatives and president of the country, not to be indifferent to my cause and the cause of my colleagues.” His letter, which was published by the Asia-Plus news agency, also warned against “сonfession videos ” obtained under pressure.
Disdain for international bodies
Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Freedom Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), reported that the authorities obtained a filmed confession from Gurbati by offering the possibility of an early release. Gurbati was sentenced on 4 October to seven and a half years in prison on charges of insulting an official, using violence against an official, and participating in an extremist organisation. The fact that his sentence was announced during a visit by Teresa Ribeiro, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, highlighted the government’s disdain for international bodies. Pirmukhamadzoda’s description of being tortured drew attention to how the Tajik authorities also flout human rights conventions. In a letter published by Radio Ozodi, he said he was tortured for eight to ten days until he delivered a confession on camera. Like Saidamini, who was sentenced a month prior, on 3 November, he was sentenced on 26 December to seven years in prison on a charge of participating in an extremist organisation.
In the same letter, Pirmukhamadzoda also voiced pessimism about the future of press freedom in Tajikistan, saying he had no faith in its judicial system and that he was sure that his sentence had been determined in the corridors of power before his arrest. His words reflect the climate of terror imposed by President Rakhmon, which facilitates the persecution of journalists and encourages them to censor themselves. Since 2021, when government censorship was imposed on TV and radio, the authorities have been cracking down harder on independent journalism. Recent victims also include Khushruz Jumayev, a blogger who was given an eight-year prison sentence earlier in December. “The authorities are trying to establish total control over public opinion in the country,” has expressed Nuriddin Karshiboyev, the head of the National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT), an RSF partner. (…) These actions will (…) ultimately have a very bad effect on Tajikistan’s image.”