One of the good things about being a journalist in Tajikistan is that you have a lot more independence that those working in government, say the four journalists I chatted with recently. As an example, one of them showed me a full-page story she wrote about her trip to Jaipur, India.
I met the four through a contact in Dushanbe. Aslam Muminov is an economics editor and also reports for the only daily newspaper in Tajikistan, Imruz News. I haven’t seen a copy of it, so I don’t know if both words are in Cyrillic or if News is spelled with the Latin alphabet. Imruz means “today’s” and the four joked that one word is in Tajik and the other in English. Abdullah Ashurov, who went to university in Russia as well as Tajikistan and who has worked for a Russian newspaper and the Russian publication AsiaPlus (English version at news.tj/en) now works for a youth program on Radio Liberty. Marhabo Azamatovna is the chief editor of the Russian Language Program for the National Information Agency of Tajikistan “Khovar.” Jamila Mirbozkhonova is a political and feature reporter for the weekly newspaper Ozodagon. All have Tajik university education in journalism, history or economics and all are full-time, professional journalists, between their late twenties and forties (I am guessing their ages, based on their appearance.) Asia Plus is a popular news source in Tajikistan, for those who have Internet access.
In this blog post, I am summarizing what they told me, but have not been able to verify it — not because I tried and couldn’t get verification, but because I have not yet talked with anyone else about these topics and I can’t read Cyrillic, let alone Tajik or Russian. So all the comments below are from their perspective – working in a language that is not their own, but that they speak moderately well. Plus, you will notice that they talked only of print journalism.
Another good thing about being a journalist, they told me, is that journalists can help poor people. People with problems come to them and ask them to write about it, and then people in the government see the stories and sometimes help. When I interviewed a broadcast journalist in China 10 years ago, I was told the same story. The people came to the journalists for help, rather than the government, because with the publicity, the government is more likely to remedy the situation.
The conversation quickly moved to some of the aspects that are not good for Tajik journalists.
Running a newspaper is expensive. An independent (from the government) newspaper makes its money through circulation and advertising. The advertising market is quite small in Tajikistan. Circulation of most newspapers is also quite small, perhaps 2-3,000 for most of them. Newspapers cost 1.5 to 2 somoni (about 30-40 U.S. cents), which is expensive for most Tajiks. We were speaking in the American Corner in Dushanbe – two rooms full of computers and information about the US run by the embassy in one of the university buildings – and I noticed that the three newspapers Jamila brought to show me were quickly snatched up by onlookers to be read while the five of us talked.
A big expense for newspapers is the newsprint. The Freedom House site (www.freedomhouse.org) reports that the government controls newsprint distribution. However, my four colleagues disagreed and said the government does not control any of the companies that import the newsprint from Russia (none is manufactured in Tajikistan), but the paper is expensive. So is printing, although there are numerous printers in town. But, they continued, the government does assert some control on circulation through the mail. Independent publications must pay relatively high postal rates while government sponsored publications are posted at a much lower rate.
Another way that the government influences news content is that access to information can be difficult for a journalist working for an independent news source. The laws do not require ministry officials to give information to journalists or to the public. The government officials will frequently ignore requests and give what information they do want publicized to the government supported media.
The lack of technology is another problem for the Tajik journalists. The newspapers cannot pay for phone use or laptops for their reporters, although they may have computers in their offices.
The print media are technically free (although I believe the television broadcasting stations are government owned, or at least heavily government regulated). However, government officials can still harass journalists who become too critical of the President or of other political or economic doings. Not that my four friends are afraid that they would be put into jail, at least not longer than a few months, but they and their newspapers can be harassed in other ways, such as having their taxes raised and eventually being forced out of business.
I read on the Reporters Without Borders site (www.en.rsf.org) that Dodojon Atovulloev, a Tajik journalist who founded the first opposition newspaper after Tajikistan’s independence and who was forced out of Tajikistan in 2001, was stabbed in the stomach while at a restaurant in Moscow last month. He was badly hurt, but survived. Atovulloev now lives in Hamburg and Moscow and maintains editorial offices there.
The last problem that Jamilia, Abdullah, Aslam and Marhoba talked about was journalists’ pay. They work hard for little pay and many journalists have other jobs to make ends meet. This would mean that they have less time to do their reporting jobs.
I really appreciate the time and thoughtfulness that these four busy journalists gave me on that winter afternoon and hope to learn more about their profession in Tajikistan as well as keeping in touch with them. The fact that they said I could report what they said using their names shows that Tajik journalism is different from the time of the Soviet Union.