On November 1, nine Tajikistani journalists — all employees of Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language service of RFE/RL — will lose their reporting credentials. They will join five other Ozodi journalists who have lost accreditation, leaving just five reporters in the Dushanbe branch with the proper paperwork to do their job.
This is not the first time Tajik authorities have weaponized press accreditation to control Radio Ozodi’s reporting. In November 2016, the Tajik Foreign Ministry suspended the accreditation of six journalists after Ozodi refused to censor reporting about the president’s daughter.
But this episode seems different, according to Radio Ozodi’s Acting Director Salimjon Aioubov. In 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs restored accreditation just a few weeks after revoking it. This time around, the waiting has felt endless. Aioubov told The Diplomat that it usually takes one month for the authorities to approve or deny applications for accreditation renewal, but months have passed without any hint from the Ministry about how it will proceed.
By refusing to issue a decision on these journalists’ accreditation renewals, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is tightening the screws on an already repressive media environment.
Radio Ozodi is one of the few remaining independent media outlets operating in Tajikistan, and it stands out among these outlets as a unique and critical source of Tajik-language reporting that challenges state narratives. Ozodi is an incredibly popular source of news, with several hundred thousand followers on Facebook and Instagram, and its website received over 49 million page views in 2018.
Earlier this year, Ozodi came under fire for self-censorship, specifically “quashing or watering down stories” that criticized President Emomali Rahmon or his family. Sojida Djakhfarova stepped down from her role as head of the Tajik Service a week after these reports emerged. While this might have served as an assurance to U.S. stakeholders that the broadcaster was doing its job, it did not smooth over tensions in Dushanbe.
“[The authorities] enjoyed some degree of softness of Ozodi’s content,” Aioubov told The Diplomat. “And now they don’t like what’s going on.”
Aiuobov’s team of journalists are based in Dushanbe, while RFE/RL is headquartered in Prague and maintains a corporate office in Washington D.C. As such, the rapidly approaching deadline for the nine journalists’ accreditation — and so the durability of the Dushanbe bureau — is a transnational affair. On October 9, U.S. Congressmen Adam Schiff and Steve Chabot sent a letter to Emomali Rahmon urging that Ozodi be allowed to operate. In the letter, Schiff and Cabot referred to ongoing harassment of Radio Ozodi journalists and wrote, “If this continues, we fear that it may cause damage to the U.S.-Tajik relationship and to Tajikistan’s reputation.”
Social scientists have argued that outside pressure like this can be effective for changing policy in autocratic countries because traditional civil society is weak, and citizens lack formal channels through which to hold political elite accountable. Tajikistanis have challenged this conventional wisdom before, though, as when an online petition saved several historical buildings from destruction; as such, Aiuobov is hopeful about support within Tajikistan.
In addition to an outpouring of support on social media, local civil society organizations have also stepped up in defense of Radio Ozodi. On October 23, the National Association for Independent Media of Tajikistan (NANSMIT) and the Media Council of Tajikistan called on Dushanbe to extend the accreditation of Ozodi journalists. “The accreditation mechanism should facilitate the effective exercise of journalists’ professional rights, not limit their professional activities,” the organizations said in a statement.
Authorities in Tajikistan have not responded to any of these statements. So what happens if November 1 comes and goes without Radio Ozodi’s journalists getting their accreditation?
Without accreditation, journalists are vulnerable to sanction and can be excluded from official events. Losing press credentials means Ozodi journalists lose the access that lets them verify government policies and glimpse at the inner-workings of the Tajik state.
Even so, there’s precedent for RFE/RL branches operating without accredited journalists. Writers contributing to RFE/RL’s Turkmen and Uzbek-language services work without accreditation. Drawing on these examples, Aioubov told The Diplomat that there is a degree of freedom in losing accreditation, insofar as the state loses institutional leverage over RFE/RL. “They can’t use this tool against us,” Aiuobov said.
The silent treatment is frustrating, but it does not compare to the (sometimes violent) legal and extra-legal pressures Tajikistan’s government has used in the past to limit criticism. Ozodi’s journalists are hopeful and, more importantly, determined to make the best of a frustrating situation. “Of course we can survive,” Aiuobov told The Diplomat. “We will continue to do our job, no doubt.”