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(New York) – A court decision against one of Tajikistan’s leading independent news outlets and its editor harm freedom of expression in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The decision upholds a finding of guilt for committing “insult” and a draconian level of damages against Asia Plus, one of the few independent news sources, over a critical article. The decision could have a chilling effect on free speech and undermine Tajiks’ ability to obtain diverse information, Human Rights Watch said.

“Asia Plus is one of Tajikistan’s most important news outlets and shouldn’t be punished for its independence,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Tajik government should uphold free expression, not intimidate critical journalists and censor legitimate speech by misusing defamation laws and claims for monetary damages.”

On May 30, 2013, Asia Plus published an article by the site’s editor, Olga Tutubalina, “Unintelligent about the Intelligentsia.” Writing on the return to Tajikistan of Bozor Sobir, a well-known poet and former high-profile government opponent, Tutubalina expressed scepticism over Sobir’s public praise for President Emomali Rahmon, which included a call to Tajikistan’s artists and intellectuals to “unite” around the president. The article also criticized Sobir’s statement that he believed there are “too many political parties in Tajikistan.”

Tutubalina began her article quoting an aphorism Lenin used in his criticism of the intelligentsia as a social class: “The intelligentsia is not the nation’s brains, but its shit.”

Three Tajik intellectuals not named in the article and five state-funded bodies – the Unions of Writers, Artists, Composers, and Architects, and the Tajik Academy of Sciences – filed a suit against Tutubalina. The suit accused her of attacking “the honor, dignity and reputation of a large social group,” causing them “physical and mental suffering.”

On February 25, 2014, the Firdausi District Court in Dushanbe ordered Asia Plus and Tutubalina to publish a retraction and pay the plaintiffs approximately US$6,100 (30,000 somoni). The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is approximately $200.

Tutubalina and Asia Plus appealed, but, on April 30, the Dushanbe City Court upheld the decision. On May 19, Tutubalina and Asia Plus filed a further appeal with the chairman of the Dushanbe City Court.

“This case is an all too common example of an effort to intimidate journalists into silence in Tajikistan,” Swerdlow said. “The article discusses a topic of valid public debate, and while some of the language and references may have ruffled feathers, its criticism of the government is more likely to have provoked the lawsuit.”

Along with a weekly newspaper, Asia Plus includes a newswire agency, radio station, television station, and a website. Umed Babakhanov, editor-in-chief of Asia Plus, told Human Rights Watch he believes the current suit is “a striking example of an orchestrated case” that fits a larger pattern of authorities using “contrived claims as an instrument to pressure media outlets.”

In recent years the Tajik government has severely restricted media freedoms by periodically blocking access to independent websites, including Asia Plus, and filing defamation suits against, or otherwise intimidating, critical journalists. Tajik officials have targeted Asia Plus with similar lawsuits in the past.

In February 2010, three Supreme Court judges sued Asia Plus and two other news sites for defamation in response to a series of articles on corruption in the legal system. They sought over $1 million in damages. The plaintiffs only agreed to withdraw their suit after Asia Plus and the other defendants agreed not to publish any articles on the subject for a year. In August 2011, a high-ranking official in the Internal Affairs Ministry demanded over $200,000 for “moral damage” to his “honor and dignity” for an article Asia Plus published investigating police torture, but he later withdrew the suit.

Along with Facebook, Youtube, and Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe, Asia Plus’ website has also been frequently blocked by authorities following critical reports, including on three occasions in the summer of 2012. In February 2014, the authorities revoked a newspaper’s license for covering issues that it had not listed it would cover in its charter. 

Both the United States and the European Union have expressed serious concern about the case against Asia Plus, calling on the Tajik authorities to respect and promote freedom of expression. Commenting on the case, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on media freedom, Dunja Mijatovic, stated, “A democratic society must allow for public debate without triggering financial penalties.”

Tajikistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees in article 19 the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Restrictions on freedom of expression, through civil defamation laws, for example, are permitted for the purpose of protecting the reputations of others, but under strict conditions. As the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has emphasized, defamation laws “should never be used to prevent criticism of government,” and “should reflect the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.” The use of civil defamation suits and the imposition of damages that bear no proportionality to any actual harm sustained to counter criticism, silence unwelcomed opinions, or inhibit public debate is an abuse of the law and a violation of free speech, not a reasonable restriction.

The Tajik authorities should uphold Tajikistan’s domestic and international commitments to protect free expression and allow Asia Plus and other journalists to carry out their work free of harassment and undue forms of pressure, Human Rights Watch said.

“Those who are behind this case are clearly trying to put pressure on our newspaper for its active civil position,” Babakhanov told Human Rights Watch. “They are sending a signal to all independent media in the country. Regardless of this, we hope that common sense will prevail and that higher courts will reconsider the case in strict compliance with the legislation of Tajikistan.” 

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