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Tajikistan blocks Twitter and social networks

Around 130 websites are prohibited: The government of Tajikistan has sent providers a list of Internet addresses to be blocked. Among the unwanted sites are Twitter and the social network VKontakte. The authoritarian ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan wants to block about 130 websites from this Monday on, including the short news service Twitter. This instruction was sent by the leadership in the impoverished mountainous country of Central Asia, as telecommunication companies announced in the capital Dushanbe on Saturday.

One reason was not mentioned at first. Russian-language social networks such as VKontakte or topvideo.tj, the Tajik equivalent of YouTube, were said to be “undesirable”.

Internet connections are not yet widespread in the impoverished high mountain country on the border with Afghanistan. The state television stations are the main source of information for the approximately seven million inhabitants. Critics accuse President Emomali Rachmon of oppressing dissenters, nepotism and massive corruption.

Media coverage

Current news and political analyses by outside observers can be found on an Internet resource page which is sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, among others. Radio Liberty is one of the oldest providers of critical external reporting. The London Institute for War & Peace Reporting has been providing a critical news briefing on Central Asia since September 2006, based on information from local journalists who have been consulted and trained by the Institute, and who have recently joined a Central Asia Bureau. Since 1999, the Prague-based NGO Transitions has also been producing political and social analyses online, although most of them are subject to subscription. The democracy movement Schema-root offers a news digest and BBC World provides an overview of the Tajik media landscape on its website.

Information on current political events in and from Tajikistan is only made available to a limited extent by the government in the form of reports from the state news agency Chovar. AsiaPlus, the first private news agency in Tajikistan to exist since 1996, has more to offer and has long been available in English (again largely only as a paid subscription). AsiaPlus now represents an entire media group whose products since 2011 – probably following a trend – also included the news site Islamnews, which was discontinued in 2018. – The news agency Avesta, once founded by the NGO Kuhi Nor, has been offering its services since 2003, and partly also in English. The cross-regional information service Ozodagon offers free access to its reports, while that of the Times of Central Asia is largely only available as a paid subscription. On the other hand, the more critical analyses of the Moscow-based portal Ferghana.news or the daily reporting of the independent agency CentrAsia, which is also based there, are available free of charge and partly also in English. Criticism of the regime can be found on a significantly anonymous portal of the Tajik opposition, whose representatives also run the Akhbor information service from Prague.

Tajikistan’s hesitant entry into the blogosphere represents an extension of the local news world. Local users who emerge with their own platforms, albeit understandably – as long as they are based in Tajikistan – with moderate contents, are a rarity. And it is only in the world of blogs and social networks, for example, that there is, or has been, temporary information on the reactions of Tajik citizens to the “Arab Spring”.

Who rather hears than reads, can be informed also by local and international radio stations to Tadschikistan, which are receivable like e.g. the AsiaPlus operated over Internet. The programmes of some Tajik television stations can also be followed in livestream with the help of appropriate Internet platforms.

Internet access and appearances in Tajikistan have recently been increasingly hindered by the government. It has also been noted that relevant sites such as Facebook, Youtube etc. have been temporarily blocked for years with some regularity when politically unpleasant content appears. In 2014, plans arose to gain more control by channeling all communications to a single gateway at the state-owned Telecom. A corresponding law was signed by the president in 2016 and the use of VPN software to circumvent blockades was prohibited. However, similar to the classic journalistic media, the scissors in the heads of direct state censorship measures seem to be preempting local website creators and operators anyway.

Fundamentals of the political situation

The unmistakable heterogeneity of Tajikistan and its society, coupled with economic, social and political problems matured in the 1980s, proved to be a factor of grave importance in 1992. As soon as the country gained its internationally recognized state sovereignty, it suddenly plunged into a devastating civil war. After a few years of a precarious, repeatedly broken ceasefire (since 1994), a peace agreement was concluded in 1997 between the two main opponents (moderate Islamist and democratic opposition versus secularist patrimonial government) under UN mediation. However, Tajikistan still suffers from the negative political, economic and social consequences of its civil war today, in addition to region-specific or generally post-Soviet “transition” difficulties.

In an assessment of Tajikistan’s development presented in November 2003 by representatives of the UN and the government under the meaningful title “Moving Mountains”, there is an excellent description of the country’s fundamental political problems of the time, which even today – albeit under partly changed circumstances – still speak for many things: Tajikistan is in the complex process of two simultaneous transitions, 1) from the authoritarian Soviet regime to democracy and a market economy, 2) from the civil war to a regulated civil order. The latter regularly required the restoration of a state monopoly of power and political and institutional control over various informal rulers. Logically, however, this requirement must run counter to the desiderata of liberalization and democratization that are held high in our day. While this analysis may have raised hopes that a participatory political system could unfold once the state’s monopoly on the use of force had been sufficiently established, this has not yet been fulfilled. On the contrary, an autocratic system has gradually developed around an increasingly untouchable president.