Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Accreditation Battle Continues Between RFE/RL and Tajikistan

Four more employees – one a driver – of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service have been given six-month accreditations. The press freedom battle goes on.

Catherine Putz
Accreditation Battle Continues Between RFE/RL and Tajikistan
Credit: freestock.ca

On January 21, the Tajik Foreign Ministry issued six-month accreditations to four employees of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, while continuing to stall on issuing accreditation to seven of the service’s journalists.

In late October 2019, Tajik authorities renewed the accreditation of seven RFE/RL employees — six for six months and one for three months — just ahead of the November 1 expiration of their credentials. Eleven other employees of the service were left without accreditation. That number now stands at seven, though only for a short period of time as those accredited in the fall of 2019 will see their six months end this spring. The one journalist whose accreditation was granted on October 31 for three months will see theirs expire at the end of January.

In a letter to Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on January 21, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly wrote that “These partial accreditations, together with the continued harassment of Ozodi colleagues, fail to demonstrate your government’s sincerity to allow Radio Ozodi to function unimpeded.”

RFE/RL’s reporting on the matter points out that Tajik law mandates year-long accreditations. Tajik law also requires more than just foreign journalists to be accredited. Drivers and support staff also must have accreditation. 

Among those still without accreditation are two former chiefs of the bureau, who were replaced because they lacked the important credentials.

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As Colleen Wood explained last year, “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.”

But accreditation, as important as it is for traditional journalistic work, is not quite necessary. Both RFE/RL’s Turkmen and Uzbek services operate without accreditation. This takes creativity; often anonymity is necessary for the journalists, and does impede the process of verifying information about government policies. If you cannot ask a ministry what its position is, its easier to get the story wrong — an argument in favor of governments providing accreditation. But then again, there is a degree of freedom that comes without having government-provided credentials. The credentials then can’t be used, as they have arguably been in Tajikistan, as a point of pressure either in punishment for unwanted coverage or reward for steering clear of sensitive topics.

Tajikistan has both parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020 — topics the Tajik Service most certainly want to follow closely. 

A host organizations have issued statements against the Tajik government’s ongoing battle with RFE/RL — from  OSCE to the The Washington Post, as well as the usual suspects like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch. The issue even drew the attention of U.S. legislators, as I noted in my November 2019 report on the first wave of short-term accreditations:

On October 9, U.S. Congressmen Adam Schiff and Steve Chabot — the Democratic and Republican, respectively, co-chairs of the Congressional Press Freedom Caucus — penned a letter to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, expressing concerns over the delay and other issues. 

[Then in late October] four U.S. Senators — James Risch, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, and Robert Casey — sent their own letter expressing concern over reports that “journalists affiliated with radio Ozodi… are being harassed, threatened, and in some cases, denied accreditation…”

Both letters made vague threats that failing to allow RFE/RL to operate freely could lead to “repercussions for the strengthening of the U.S.-Tajik relationship.” It’s unclear how that would actually play out. For example, Tajikistan has consistently escaped sanctions for its terrible religious freedom record due to its importance for U.S. national security, i.e. the war in Afghanistan. RFE/RL’s accreditation troubles seem unlikely to tilt that scale, though there are potential levers available if the U.S. government is serious about press freedoms in Central Asia.