No discussion of freedom of expression in Tajikistan would be complete without a description of the violence and chaos that has wracked the country since 1992. Years of civil conflict, a weak central government, and easy availability of arms have bred a culture of violence. High levels of political and criminal violence, including hostage-taking, murder, rape, and gang warfare, persist. An accompanying climate of fear reigns among the general population, exacerbated by corruption and incompetence within the law enforcement agencies. In this environment, journalists, despite the heightened risks associated with their professional duties, cannot rely on the protection of state authorities any more than can ordinary citizens. This lack of recourse contributes to self-censorship, which constitutes one of the most important restrictions on the media. A cursory glance at incidents of threats and violent acts committed against journalists, as documented in the Glasnost Defense Foundation's monthly Monitor (Moscow), and in this report, shows that journalists are frequently the victims of violence.
In addition, the legacy of loss suffered by journalists throughout the civil conflict still weighs heavy: at least fifty journalists were killed from 1992 to 1997, and some journalists' defense organizations reported seventy or eighty killed, and more than thirty publications closed.33 All sources concur, however, that not one perpetrator of these killings has been held accountable to date. This failure on the part of the government to investigate the murders or prosecute those responsible only reinforces the sense that journalists lack protection altogether and that "they must try their best not to cross the line between what is acceptable and what will cause consternation."34 Journalists also fear for members of their families, who may be subject to reprisals should they offend those who wield power. A former reporter for state television summed up the situation as follows:
It is self-evident that true freedom and democracy must be hospitable to criticism. Undeniably, however, one of the unanswerable questions in Tajikistan today is how to criticize, and how much. For example, can you criticize the president or the leader of the opposition? That can be fatal. Can you criticize Russia or Uzbekistan? That can be fatal to your career. Can you criticize a neighbour? That depends on who it is.35
Violence Against Journalists
Journalists have fallen victim to the high levels of violence that beset Tajik society today, particularly in Dushanbe. Although in many cases it is difficult to distinguish whether violence perpetrated against journalists is state-sponsored, the professional profile of journalists, the investigative nature of their work, and their actions or even perceived actions can put them at deadly risk. Extrajudicial executions of journalists have greatly decreased in the past two to three years, nonetheless, the high-profile assassinations of ORT correspondent Viktor Nikulin in 1996 and BBC journalist Muhiddin Olimpur in 1995, in addition to between fifty and eighty journalists murdered in connection with the civil war and its aftermath, have left a great legacy of fear. Further, incidents of violence against journalists are rarely reported in the press, and efforts by law enforcement members to provide protection or legal remedies have to date been inadequate. Some recent cases include the following:
On July 4, 1999, forty-two year-old Ministry of Interior press center chief Jumakhon Hotami was gunned down in a suburb of Dushanbe, according to family members, during an organized attack. Hotami had since 1993 led aweekly "fight against crime" television program, and was widely held in high regard for his hard-hitting investigations into and revelations of the drug trade. He had also, according to family members, at least on one occasion fallen out of favor with government figures for going too far in his research, which resulted in the temporary suspension of the television program.36
Journalist and human rights activist Maksudjon Husseinov has on more than one occasion been the victim of violent attacks and other harassment. Husseinov, a correspondent for the independent Dushanbe-based newspaper Charkhi Gardun, is also employed by the Glasnost Defense Foundation. On October 1, 1998, when he was away, two masked men entered his Dushanbe home in the mid-afternoon, one carrying a pistol. They asked Husseinov's wife where her husband was, delivered blows to her chest and knee, and wounded her in the head. They subsequently searched the apartment, stole money, and warned Husseinov's wife that he should "stop writing about candidates."37 Husseinov had just returned on September 30 from a human rights course given at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw.
Husseinov told Human Rights Watch that throughout 1998 he had received several anonymous phone calls threatening him with beatings. And in 1995, Tajik authorities arrested and detained him for possession of copies of the independent newspaper Charogi Ruz.38
Following international protests about the October 1 attack, an investigation was begun and law enforcement authorities on more than one occasion visited and consulted with Mr. Husseinov;39 nonetheless, in April 1999 he was once again attacked by unidentified assailants. He related the following:
On the evening of April 3, 1999, on Saturday, I was walking home in the 63rd microraion (neighborhood). It had just become slightly dark, and as I was passing School No. 42 two men about twenty-two to twenty-five years old, one in military camouflage, the other in police uniform, grabbed me. They demanded my documents, and, threatening me, said, "Who are you? Where are you coming from? What are you doing here? etc." I told them that I lived here, asked, "What do you want from me?" and took a few steps forward. But at that moment a gun went off beside me, and in terror I threw myself on the ground, right on the cement, so that I severely injured my left hand. Then they forcibly lifted me up from the ground, and said that we were going to the police station. I named a police officer that I know there, but when we arrived, they all the while hiding their faces from me, the station was closed. Then they went through my wallet and took 500 rubles, all the money that was there, and also my watch. After I told them that I knew the Minister of the Interior and after I named other bosses they became a bit more timid, but they threatened me again several times with the automatic and finally let me go.
I may have been attacked for two reasons. The first, because I work for the Glasnost Defense Foundation, and it's not the first time I've been attacked in this way. The second may have been in order to rob me. However, it's interesting that law enforcement elements themselves are carrying out such robberies.40
At the time of his interview with Human Rights Watch, Mr. Husseinov's left hand was visibly wounded, blue in color, and he was unable to move it. Police investigations have thus far yielded no results, nor have the perpretators of theOctober 1 attack been identified.
In some cases, it is unclear whether violence against journalists was perpetrated in retaliation for their work or whether it was simply part of widespread random violence. For example, on June 8, 1998, unidentified persons entered seventy-year-old Meirkhaim Gavrielov's home in Dushanbe, beat him, then strangled him to death with metal wire.41 Gavrielov had worked as a journalist in Dushanbe for over fifty years, and was equally well-known as the Chairman of the Bukharan Jews' Cultural Society. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, Gavrielov at the time of his murder was editor-in-chief of the Tajik Agrarian University newspaper, Donish (Knowledge), a position he had held since 1979. He was also the author of several books. Local law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of InternalAffairs reported the death as a suicide, stating that Gavrielov had suffocated himself with a pillow in the presence of his adolescent daughter; according to official statements, Gavrielov's wife confirmed this information.42
A forensic medical affidavit obtained by Human Rights Watch, however, indicates that the cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation.43 And an eyewitness who entered Gavrielov's apartment soon after he was killed told Human Rights Watch, "It was clear that he was strangled, I saw the marks on his throat. Also, he was beaten. I could see the welts on his body. If he had suffocated himself with a pillow, then why the welts on his body?"44
Hostage-taking of both Tajiks and foreign residents over the past years has become an established method of lodging political and financial demands in Tajikistan, underscoring an almost total lack of government control and authority. Journalists were among those abducted in two hostage episodes. The government of Tajikistan's agents were not directly responsible for abductions in the incidents described below; nonetheless, the government must bear responsibility for the overall climate of lawlessness in which abductions have become part of political life in the country.
In February 1997, a rogue rebel group led by the warlord brothers Bahrom and Rizvon Sodirov took seventeen people hostage in Obigarm, about eighty kilometers east of the capital, and in downtown Dushanbe.45 Among those kidnapped were international humanitarian aid staff and five Russian journalists: Itar-Tass correspondent Galina Gridneva, Interfax correspondent Suraiyo Sobirova, NTV Tajik staff members Odiljon Ashurov and Bobojon Tuganov, and their driver. The Sodirovs demanded arms and the transfer to Tajikistan of forty of their supporters from a Tajik refugee camp in northern Afghanistan.
En route to interview the hostage-takers and "break" the story, the journalists themselves were seized; later on, the Tajik Minister of Security, in an attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages, was also abducted. Ironically, the hostage-takers explained the kidnapping of the journalists in the following way: "They are our guests, [and are here] in order that the events be objectively covered."46 The capture of the journalists resulted in a unique situation in which the Sodirovs used the journalists' equipment, including satellite telephones, to deliver information and communicate their demands, and the journalists themselves broadcast several reports from their place of captivity.
The hostages were released after two weeks; some had been beaten and abused.47 NTV correspondent Odiljon Ashurov made the following comments:
You know, this had never happened before February 1997. We weren't afraid, that's why we drove up there in a car, just like that. And who knows, maybe the other hostages were treated better because we were taken, we were used for informational purposes...now, however, a precedent has been set, and we take precautions in dangerous spots that we didn't take before, for example, sometimes we travel with armed guards, we warn those in the area that we're coming, etc.48
Ashurov also recounted that four NTV staff members were taken hostage by four men in camouflage in Kofarnihon in April 1998, in the wake of fighting and a prolonged military standoff in the region between government security forces and armed groups allegedly loyal to the UTO. "They were held for a few hours, and taken to a kishlak. They finally got off by paying some money," said Ashurov. "What do you want? There's no more respect."49
On August 20, 1997, four unidentified armed men arrived at the home of Tuhfa Ahmedova, in Khatlon oblast. Ahmedova, a correspondent for the Dushanbe-based newspaper Charkhi Gardun, had conducted an interview with Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, commander of the Rapid Reaction Brigade, published in an April 1997 issue of Samar (The Fruit). On August 20, further to his failed rebellion led against the central government earlier that month, Khudoiberdiev was fired. The gunmen took Ahmedova's husband hostage for two days, and released him when the requested ransom of U.S. $1,000.00 was paid.50 Although Human Rights Watch was unable to interview Tuhfa Ahmedova, credible sources alleged that the hostage-taking was linked to her article on Khudoiberdiev.5133 Human Rights Watch interview with Oleg Panfilov, Glasnost Defense Foundation, Moscow, June 3, 1998; round table on freedom of expression, Dushanbe, June 16, 1998. Figures of those killed in connection with the conflict remain a subject of dispute, however, and the following publications name lower figures. Attacks on the Press in 1997, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ; Leonid Zagalsky, "26 Journalists Killed in Tajikistan Amid Campaign of Terror," Dangerous Assignments, Summer/Fall 1994, no. 46; Rapport annuel 1997, Reporters sans Frontières; Report of Human Rights Needs-Assessment Mission to Tajikistan, The UN High Commissioner/Centre for Human Rights, August 11, 1997. 34 Human Rights Watch interview with Abduqodir Kholiqzoda, editor-in-chief of Istiqlol, Dushanbe, April 15, 1998. 35 Mouhabbat Khodjibaeva, "Television and the Tajik Conflict," Central Asia Monitor, no. 1, 1999.
36 Human Rights Watch interview with family members, Dushanbe, July 20, 1999. Asia-Plus Blits, no. 124, July 5, 1999.
37 Husseinov explained to Human Rights Watch that he had not written articles of a political nature, and that he himself had no idea who the "candidates" might be. Interview with Maksudjon Husseinov, Dushanbe, October 13, 1998.
39 Human Rights Watch interview with Maksudjon Husseinov, Dushanbe, November 24, 1998.
40 Human Rights Watch interview with Maksudjon Husseinov, Dushanbe, April 7, 1999.
41 Letter of Glasnost Defense Foundation to President Rakhmonov, June 21, 1998.
42 Asia-Plus Blits, no. 106, June 10-12, 1998.
43 Forensic Medical Expertise No. 208, June 9, 1998, Dr. Egamberdiev, Republican Bureau of Forensic Expertises of the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan.
44 Human Rights Watch interview, Dushanbe, August 6, 1998. Identity withheld.
45 A failure to prosecute hostage-takers in a timely fashion only reinforces their impunity. For instance, Bahrom Sodirov together with his brother Rizvon was responsible for the abduction of several UNMOT officials in December 1996. Less than two months later, he led the February 1997 hostage-taking. Although Bahrom Sodirov was captured by government forces at the end of March 1997, the government did not publicly confirm his whereabouts or status for a full year and a half. The Sodirov group at later intervals took Tajik citizens hostage, including the country's chief mufti and members of his family. In November 1997, Rizvon Sodirov kidnapped two French nationals, demanding the release of his brother Bahrom; one of the hostages, Kareen Mane, was fatally wounded during the rescue operation. Reuters and ITAR-TASS, as reported in RFE/RL Newsline vol. 2, no. 197, part I, October 12, 1998.
Bahrom Sodirov was sentenced to death in October 1998, one-and-a-half years after his capture by government security forces. He had reportedly been executed by the end of 1998. Rizvon Sodirov was allegedly killed by government forces in early December 1997.
46 Oleg Panfilov, unpublished manuscript; Human Rights Watch interview with Odiljon Ashurov, Dushanbe, August 13, 1998.
47 The reaction of the Russian embassy in Dushanbe toward the kidnapping was also representative of its ambiguous attitude towards Russian journalists in Tajikistan. During an interview on NTV, the ambassador claimed that the journalists should not have traveled to the region at that particular time. Ekho Moskviy (Moscow Echo) , February 6, 1997; Oleg Panfilov, unpublished manuscript.
48 Human Rights Watch interview with Odiljon Ashurov, Dushanbe, August 13, 1998.
50 Monitor (Moscow), August 1997; Human Rights Watch interview with Maksudjon Husseinov, May 11, 1998.
51 Mahmud Khodoberdiev is an ethnic Uzbek. In the wake of the uprising he led, ethnic Uzbeks in Tajikistan suffered reprisals-some were killed, and many fled Dushanbe for Leninabad or Uzbekistan. Khudoberdiev and many of his supporters allegedly found refuge in Uzbekistan.