In Tajikistan, America’s beacon for a free press may have been corrupted

April 17, 2019
Image by Brian Harrington Spier via Wikimedia Commons.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a network of radio stations funded by the US government to counter misinformation abroad, pledges to provide “fair and objective news, analysis, and discussion.” It was described last month in this magazine as “Washington’s open, public way to compete with Russian state-controlled media and disinformation.”

But it may actually be helping spread it—at least in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, where it runs a station called Radio Ozodi, according to reporting by EurasiaNet and an open letter of protest from 22 academics last week.

“Radio Ozodi, once the most credible source of news and information in the country, has become a mouthpiece for the deeply corrupt authoritarian government of Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon,” the academics’ letter concluded. An internal State Department memo authored by a US Embassy Tajikistan press officer and provided to CJR indicated the US government shares some of the academics’ concerns.  

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At Radio Ozodi, according to EurasiaNet and Tajik-language news outlets, reporting is skewed in favor of the government, requests from the state security service to strike articles critical of the government are routinely honored, and the station is financially entangled with the president’s family.

Some current and former Ozodi reporters, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive situation, were shocked at how EurasiaNet reporting characterized the outlet, saying it does not describe the bureau they know. RFE/RL denied the allegations.

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“We are committed to maintaining the highest journalistic standards, while recognizing the real threats targeting our people,” RFE/RL spokesperson Joanna Levison said. “Ozodi is credible and remains a vital source of independent information and informed and open discussion in Tajikistan’s authoritarian society.”

Founded during the Cold War as a bulwark against Soviet media in Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty now employs 700 people in 22 countries across Asia and the former Soviet Union, including at Radio Ozodi’s offices in Tajikistan and Prague.

In Tajikistan, located just north of Afghanistan and on the far western border of China, journalism has been a perilous endeavor since the fall of the Soviet Union. After a bloody civil war in the 1990s, a strongman regime led by President Rahmon embarked on a decades-long undertaking to concentrate power and silence opponents, including journalists.

In 2015, the Rahmon government labeled a mysterious firefight between a sitting colonel and state security services an attempted coup. In the ensuing state of emergency, the government banned Tajikistan’s only legitimate opposition party, declared it a terrorist group, and targeted its supporters. Parliament amended the constitution to grant President Rahmon and his family legal immunity.

Around that time, Ed Lemon, a Central Asia expert who helped draft the open letter, started to notice holes in Ozodi’s Tajik-language journalism, he said. But it was the outlet’s reporting over the past year that spurred him to organize academics to call attention to what he characterized as Ozodi’s “pro-governmental coverage.”

After a terrorist attack killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan in 2018, Ozodi uncritically repeated the government’s talking point that the banned opposition party was to blame. The government offered no credible evidence to support its position.

And Ozodi is worryingly lax about covering the exigencies of Tajikistan’s elite, EurasiaNet reported last month.

“Stories questioning or even shedding light on the activities of the president’s family are mostly off-limits,” EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor Peter Leonard wrote. Ozodi’s editor “often nixes pitches for pieces that could cast Tajikistan’s leadership in a poor light.”

An RFE/RL investigation concluded that Ozodi’s coverage of Rahmon and his family, human rights, and the banned political party “failed to live up to RFE/RL’s standards.” “We have already taken steps to correct these lapses,” wrote acting RFE/RL president Daisy Sindelar in a press release.

Contact with the Tajik security service is the norm, the EurasiaNet report indicated. EurasiaNet described editors openly discussing their conversations with Khurshed Beamamadov, the chief for media and academia for Tajikistan’s intelligence agency.

RFE/RL denied that the Tajik security services exerted any control over Radio Ozodi. “RFE/RL’s editorial policy is independent of any government,” Levison said. “Articles may be reviewed and, when necessary, corrected, in response to a claim by anyone about a factual error, but RFE/RL’s reporting and editorial decisions are wholly its own.”

But the outlet betrays a pattern of close ties, bordering on conflict of interest, to the Rahmon regime, according to an internal RFE/RL audit.

In 2016, Ozodi signed a contract with a radio station owned by the Tajik president’s brother-in-law, one of the most powerful oligarchs in the country, to rebroadcast news spots. The contract was worth $46,800 a year—a huge quantity of money in Tajikistan. EurasiaNet reported that the winning bid was nearly twice that of the next-highest bidder.

The State Department is taking notice, according to the internal memo.

“Repeated unprofessional behavior and allegations of mismanagement” at Ozodi have damaged the outlet’s reputation in Central Asia, the memo said. The beleaguered outlet’s affiliation with the US government has “undermined USG regional messaging and credibility.” While the State Department has not confirmed the validity of the document, it has raised concerns about Radio Ozodi with RFE/RL and its supervisory agency, according to a State Department spokesperson.  

Reporting in Tajikistan is a tough job. One journalist, Khayrullo Mirsaidov, was released from prison in August after being sentenced to 12 years in jail for accusing a high-ranking official of corruption. In January, while traveling for medical treatment, he was charged again in absentia, and can never return to the country.

“We have a list of people who, under no circumstances, can be criticized by advertisers and partners,” Zebo Tadjibaeva, the executive director of independent Tajik news outlet Asia-Plus, told IREX in 2018.

The editor of a Tajik weekly echoed that sentiment. “Two or three times, we had to stop printing, as the National Security Committee demanded I remove an article,” said Khurshed Niyozov. “Only upon removal would the issue see the light of day.”

It’s not uncommon for journalists in Tajikistan to be targeted by agents of the security service asking for inside information on what outlets plan to print, or requesting that coverage of a controversial topic be yanked. The threat is implicit, but very real. In 2016, the government temporarily stripped the credentials of six Ozodi journalists after the station reported on the appointment of the president’s daughter to a key ministry position.

“I’m confident that most journalists have either been recruited or approached by the KGB,” said a former Ozodi reporter, using a popular euphemism for Tajikistan’s state security agency, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. He described his own experience being hounded by Tajik security services for years after he refused to work with them. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

Three current and former Ozodi reporters said they have never been trained how to interact with agents of the security services, despite their ubiquity in the country. That strikes observers as downright dangerous.

“They’re operating in contexts where security services are powerful and play a role in threatening journalists,” Lemon said. “Their mandate is still to create content that is critical and contributes to democracy. You’d think there would be training for journalists.”

Levison disputed that Ozodi lacked a protocol for responding to security threats. RFE/RL reporters are told not to talk to security agents, and to report any contact up the chain of command. The agency’s corporate security service, a spokesperson said, “examines, tracks, analyzes, links, and monitors reported security incidents from all our operating locations to help us effectively protect the safety and security of staff.”

Supporting fair, hard-hitting journalism is particularly important in Tajikistan. Apart from Radio Ozodi, the Tajik news diet is a thin gruel of official press releases repackaged for nationalized media outlets, a slew of semi-independent radio stations and pamphlets, and a handful of opposition websites which are usually blocked, a 2018 IREX report detailed.

Last month, the US Agency for Global Media asked the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to “investigate certain allegations about the Tajik Service that RFE/RL staff do not have the resources or know-how to investigate,” Levison said. Two top editors at the bureau will be replaced after they resigned in early April.

The allegations about Ozodi have blackened the credibility not just of the outlet, but of the US government, the State Department memo argued. “The United States cannot risk further staining the American brand in an information space already dominated by Anti-American disinformation and anti-democratic norms.”

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Katherine Khashimova Long is an M.S. student in Columbia Journalism School's investigative specialization.