WHY DOES TAJIKISTAN BLOCK WEBSITES?

By Alexander Sodiqov (12/12/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On November 26, Internet providers in Tajikistan cut local access to Facebook, the social-networking website, citing an order from the state-run communications agency. The organization initially suggested that the ban was imposed due to “technical problems.” On November 28, however, the agency’s head announced that he had ordered to restrict access to Facebook in response to “public pressure.”

Beg Zukhurov told journalists that the website was “full of filth and slander,” claiming that “hundreds” or “respected individuals” were calling him “daily” with complaints about Facebook and requests to ban the website. He also alleged that some users in Tajikistan were paid lavishly for posting critical comments on Facebook, without clarifying who might be providing funding for such an effort. Over the next several days, Zukhurov modified his explanation, asserting that a group of anonymous “volunteers” had requested to ban the “slanderous” website in Tajikistan. Apparently, the official was referring to a volunteer-run Internet watchdog which, as he had announced in July, the authorities were planning to set up in order to “track down and identify” individuals posting comments that might be deemed insulting to the country’s leadership.

On November 29, Internet providers also blocked access to the website of Radio Ozodi (Ozodi.org), the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service. Over the last several years, the website has been one of the most popular Tajik-language sources of independent news and analysis in the country. The authorities did not offer any explanation for the restriction. However, journalists and experts were nearly unanimous in proposing that the resource was taken down in retribution for its posting of unedited interviews with Zukhurov on the Facebook ban. These interviews demonstrated the official’s incompetence and poor understanding of Facebook, leading the country’s Internet users and bloggers to ridicule him.

Responding to international criticism, particularly from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, the communications service ordered to lift the ban on Ozodi’s website on December 3. Access to Facebook was also restored during the next several days. In the meantime, however, a number of local analysts suggested that the restrictions on Facebook and the news website reflected the government’s efforts to silence critics ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November 2013. International media then seized on this proposition to emphasize the exaggerated effects of the Arab Spring on the Tajik government officials’ perception of threats emanating from social media.

In reality, however, the restrictions on two internet sites – as well as the blocks imposed on several other sites earlier in the year – did not have anything to do with the next year’s elections. Nor were they part of any broad government campaign to halt online criticism. The regime in Tajikistan appears to realize that the risk of Internet-facilitated mobilization presenting any perceptible threat to its survival is highly exaggerated. Although social networking websites such as Facebook have provided the country’s Internet users and opposition figures with a space where they can openly criticize the government, only a limited number of Tajiks choose to do so. Out of the almost two million official users of stationary and mobile Internet in the country, perhaps less than one-tenth ever use Internet for anything other than entertainment.

This author’s analysis indicates that although there are about 41,000 Tajikistani Facebook users, most of them do not use the website for anything other than simply keeping in touch with friends. Even in the largest and most popular Tajik groups on Facebook, there is a fairly constant and very limited group of users – probably less than 100 individuals in total – who regularly post status updates or stories that might be deemed as insulting to Tajikistan’s leadership. The most active among these individuals are based outside of Tajikistan. Those living in the country most often choose not to criticize the regime, perhaps being wary of potential repercussions.

The volunteer-run watchdog group that Beg Zukhurov mentioned and that many media have interpreted as an embodiment of the government’s effort to clamp down on Internet criticism is presently nothing more than a myth. Although the authorities might actually think about setting up such a group, nothing of the sort has been created yet.

The authorities in Tajikistan have often blocked websites, but the restrictions were dictated by immediate and often personal concerns rather than by any comprehensive campaign to silence critics. Facebook was already blocked in Tajikistan for a brief period earlier in the year. In March, the communication service cut local access to the networking website along with four independent Russian-language sites (Centrasia.ru, Maxala.org, Tjknews.com, and Zvezda.ru). This was an attempt by the authorities to prevent the dissemination of an article which provided details of an alleged government campaign to weaken and discredit the country’s main opposition party. Access to Facebook was restored after less than a week.

In June, the communications agency cut local access to the website of Asia-Plus (News.tj), the leading Russian-language media group in the country, officially in response to the group’s failure to moderate “insulting” user comments. Although the agency does frequently publish materials critical of the government, many journalists, including those working for Asia-Plus, believe the ban of the agency’s website was part of Zukhurov’s “personal revenge” against the group that had heavily criticized his policy initiatives.

In July, at the height of the government’s security operation in the eastern Tajik province of Gorno-Badakhshan, the authorities blocked access to YouTube and several Russian-language news sites – including BBC’s Russian Service, Vesti.ru, Lenta.ru, Fergana.ru, and Pamir-vesti.ru – which challenged the government’s narrative of the events in GBAO. By the end of October, however, most of the previously banned websites in the country were unblocked.

To conclude, contrary to what some local analysts and international media assert, the restrictions that the authorities in Tajikistan have imposed on several independent websites do not indicate the existence of a government campaign to silence online critics, in general or ahead of the elections next year. The regime has resorted to website blocks in response to immediate and temporary concerns rather than strategic, long-term calculations.