Nine Tajik journalists from the independent TRK-Asia and SM-1 TV stations in the northern city of Khujand, Sugd province were recently arrested after taking part in a TV talk show organized by the international non-profit organization Internews. The head of SMI-1, Mahmujan Dadabayev, received phone calls from army officials on 5 November threatening to kill him and shut down the station.
Six of the nine journalists were subsequently released, but three others, Akram Azizov, 21; Nasim Rahimov, 20; and Yusuf Yunusov, 21, are still being held in the Khujand military base. The reason for the arrests was a recent TV story about the methods authorities use when conscripting youth to the military. The story revealed the details of press-ganging of young people in public places. The head of the military services in Khujand, Fazliddin Domonov interviewed for the program denied any illegal drafts. The three journalists were targeted by Domonov who called the station after the program was aired and threatened to draft everyone into the army.
In September, on the eve of Independence Day, "Asia Plus", the first private commercial radio company received its broadcasting license after a four-year struggle with the authorities. It had been interpreted by human rights and relief organizations as a good sign. Tajikistan used to be notorious with regard to harassment and assassinations on journalists in the years of the civil war, and was the second only to Algeria in terms of media professionals killed in the line of duty per capita. Now, the incident in Khujand gives a signal for concern.
Internews has been working in Tajikistan since 1995, helping the independent electronic media. Internews lawyers protested the actions of military officials and appealed to the Mayor of Khujand. Nuriddin Karshibayev, the head of the National Association of Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT) called this incident "an insult to freedom of speech". He stated that "military service is a sacred duty of each citizen. At the same time, the forced conscription of youngsters by the people in military uniform is unacceptable. Such actions are interpreted as the violation of the civil rights".
Both Internews and NANSMIT sent a statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the media. US and German diplomats have raised the incident with the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement saying, "The arrest and forced conscription in Khujand highlights the ongoing vulnerability that Tajik journalists face in retaliation from government officials for their reporting". Reporters Without Borders also issued a press release and sent a letter to the Tajik President, Imomali Rakhmonov, interpreting this incident as, "a clear reaction to the daring nature of journalists' report, which irritated the authorities. Such behavior, in addition to the threats to their superior, is unacceptable and demonstrates that the Tajik authorities have no respect for press freedom and democratic debate. Independent journalism is still a very risky business in Tajikistan".
According to Tajik law, officials in Khujand had no right to draft the three young men because they are not from a Khujand city. A young person eligible for military service has to be drafted from the military commissioner's office located in the area where he was born and is currently registered. At least a two-week notice should be given for such a draft, and the person must pass a thorough medical examination. In the meantime, the military officials say the conscription was legal since each organization or institution is required to inform the local authorities each month about the young men eligible for the draft. Military service in Tajikistan is compulsory according to the constitution. The eligible age is 18-27; however there are some exceptions (a person is exempt from service if he is a father of two children or if his parents are very old). So far, neither the Tajik Foreign Ministry officials in Dushanbe, nor the military officials in Khujand made any statements on this case.
International and local experts say that the situation in the sphere of media in Tajikistan, both print and electronic, leaves much to be desired. Residents of Dushanbe have to rely on the only one available Russian TV channel, RTR, to find out what's happening in their country. The official Tajik TV channel produces boring, and very often, stale news formats; plays folk songs and shows old movies from the Soviet times archives. The capital does not have a single private television or radio company. One sixth of the Tajik entire population reside in Dushanbe, which has not had any daily newspapers for ten years, since the time the country declared independence. Twelve weekly titles are published in Russian and Tajik, of which two or three are more or less topical. The rest of them reprint jokes and horoscopes from the Russian yellow press. Strict self-censorship is practiced; correspondents and editors try to avoid the anger of the authorities. Only three per cent of the population currently have access to the Internet, mainly employees of international organizations and graduates of US-funded exchange study programs.
In spring of this year, resource centers were set up for journalists in four regions of Tajikistan with the support from OSCE and the UN. However such a center still does not exist in Dushanbe, the most densely populated Tajik conglomerate. The condition of the media in each of the five Tajik administrative territories reflects the condition of freedoms and rights. The northern Sugd province, almost unscathed by the civil war, is considered to be the most liberal, although journalists there also suffer from censorship, harassment and influential businessmen. And the recent incident is just another reason for concern.