On March 3, Internet providers in Tajikistan cut local access to Facebook, the social-networking service, along with another four independent news websites. The blocking was ordered by the state-run communications agency, which cited technical reasons. However, media and analysts suggested that the move reflected the authorities’ determination to limit the space for political expression at home and control the flow of uncensored information from outside (www.news.tj, March 3, 5).
The block on Facebook echoes measures taken by a number of other restrictive regimes, including China, Iran and Pakistan. Analyst Saimuddin Dustov blames the development in Tajikistan on Russian media outlets, which portray social networks as sources of unrest. Despite the limited Internet penetration in Tajikistan, Facebook’s popularity has recently been on the increase there. The platform has become an outlet for expressing frustration with the government. In addition, the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT), Tajikistan’s largest and most influential opposition group, as well as a number of opposition movements in exile have actively used Facebook to mobilize support. Local analyst Zafar Abdullayev believes that the authorities imposed a ban on the social network because they began seeing it as a source of political threat (www.news.tj, March 3, 13).
The other four websites that have been blocked are Russian-language news platforms. The article that appears to have triggered the blocking was published on a Russia-based website, Zvezda, on March 1. The article, entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of a Revolution,” analyzes political and security dynamics in the country based on what it alleges are the minutes of Rahmon’s meeting with key government officials on November 24, 2011. A scanned copy of the minutes in Tajik, marked as secret and supposedly signed by the president, is also published, without any indication of how the document was obtained.
The minutes summarize the orders allegedly given by Rahmon to his ministers of interior and justice, heads of the committees for national security (GKNB) and religious affairs (CRA), and presidential advisers. According to the document, security agencies have been instructed to undertake a “political mapping” of the country’s areas, collecting the names and addresses of IRPT’s members as well as all individuals who took part in the pre-civil war mass protests in Dushanbe in 1992. These agencies have also been ordered to investigate the sources of IRPT’s funding, reinforce the surveillance of its members and induce them to leave the party. The President’s advisers have been instructed to support state media in preparing materials discrediting the IRPT and its leadership (www.zvezda.ru, March 1).
Although the authorities have denounced the minutes published on the website as fake, a number of Tajik experts who wished not to be named believe the document is authentic. They suggest that developments that have occurred in the country since November 2011, particularly the increased persecution of IRPT’s activists and independent clerics, appear to stem from the orders given at the November meeting. They also assert that the government’s response to the disclosure of the minutes seems to confirm its authenticity. After the document became available, the IRPT convened extraordinary sessions of its political council and the presidium on March 8. Following the meeting, the party announced that it is “deeply concerned about the recently emerged threats to peace, national unity, constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens, activities of political parties, and the foundations of civil society,” blaming the emergence of these threats on the government. The party has also demanded that “the leadership of the country take measures necessary to stop the persecution and other illegal and provocative actions directed against the IRPT” (www.news.tj, March 6, 7; www.nahzat.tj, March 8).
Two other news websites, TjkNews and CentrAsia, have apparently been blocked because they reprinted the article from Zvezda. Some analysts have suggested that the blocking of Facebook was also ordered after users began to share and discuss the article from Zvezda on the website (www.regnum.ru, March 7). The remaining website, Maxala, was blocked seemingly because it had published a number of articles highly critical of Rahmon.
The shutdown of the websites, particularly of Facebook, has drawn harsh criticism both at home and abroad. An association of Tajikistan’s Internet providers announced that the ban on websites was damaging to the country’s international reputation and constituted a “direct threat to national information security”. Major independent media groups in Tajikistan as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the ban restricted the constitutional freedoms of Tajik citizens and demanded that the authorities lift the ban. On March 9, Internet companies were allowed to restore access to Facebook (www.news.tj, March 6, 9, 10).
Access to those websites that remain restricted might also eventually be restored in Tajikistan, just the way it had happened before. However, the damage done by the leaked document to the government’s relationship with the IRPT will be quite difficult to repair. Ultimately, this can lead to the growing influence of radical elements within the party, with potentially dire consequences for the country’s security.