The Tajik government is claiming compliance with the country’s defamation laws as the basis for blocking several news and social media websites this past January. Media experts in the country are skeptical of this claim.
Tajikistan, recently ranked 123rd in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, has been increasingly censoring websites over the past year. The trend appears to be continuing into 2013 as Facebook, Radio Free Europe, YouTube, and other websites were blocked to Tajik citizens during the month of January.
The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in January that national access to websites was usually blocked in instances where those websites criticized Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon and government corruption.
“Tajikistan already came close to being added to the list of countries ‘under surveillance’ in our last ‘Enemies of the Internet’ report in March,  and now the government is clearly doing everything possible to make sure it is added next year, regardless of the negative impact this would have on the country’s image,” Reporters Without Borders said in an August article, when the Tajik government was still claiming technical problems as the reasons for the blockages.
At a Jan. 30 press conference, Rafikjon Shorikov, Tajik Communication Service’s deputy chief, began to speak about the increasing number of internet users in Tajikistan (up to 3.7 million) but was sidetracked by journalists who asked about why websites were being blocked and who was asking them to be blocked, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Shorikov was elusive in his answer, but said that a December 2012 amendment to the country’s Civil Code made the publication of “false information discrediting the honor, dignity and reputation of another person online prohibited.” He also said that websites were blocked in January to prevent the spread of that false information.
Tajik government officials have typically cast off accusations that the government is involved with these website blockages, claiming there are technical difficulties with server providers. However, a November statement by the State Communication Agency Chief Beg Zuhurov shed more light on the issue. He referenced groups of “concerned citizens” that reported slanderous sites to the government, asking that they be shut down, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
According to Radio Ozodi, Shorikov also referenced these citizens at the Jan. 30 press conference, saying: “They are ordinary people, like you and I. They call the Communications Agency and ask us not to allow publishing libelous and defamatory materials.” The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote that Tajik media experts think that these citizens are actually state agents who monitor the Internet for materials critical of the Tajik government.
Muzaffar Suleymanov, a research associate with the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote that he could not find any instances of defamation on the websites taken down in January by the Tajik government.
By Kelly Moffitt.