Tajikistan's people rest on the floor waiting for a plane to return in their home country at the Vnukovo international airport,…
FILE - People from Tajikistan wait for a plane to return to their home country at the Vnukovo international airport, near Moscow, March 24, 2020. Hundreds were struggling to return home after flights were canceled due to the coronavirus.

KHUJAND / WASHINGTON - While the world was distracted by the spread of COVID-19, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court banned the Prague-based news outlet Akhbor, ruling that the site’s content served the interests of “terrorists and extremists.” 

The court in March ordered Akhbor to be blocked in Tajikistan and ruled it could not operate legally as a media outlet. 

Akhbor’s chief editor and founder, Mirzo Salimpur, formerly with Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service (Radio Ozodi), said the ban had a clear message: Independent press will not be tolerated by the government in Tajikistan. 

“It’s a direct attack on media freedom,” Salimpur said.  

In a February 18 statement, the country’s chief prosecutor’s office said it took legal action “to protect the constitutional system, national security, rights and interests of the Tajik people, and to counter terrorism and extremism.”  

The Tajik authorities accused Akhbor of promoting outlawed groups such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).  It was country’s largest opposition party until the government declared it a terrorist organization in 2015.  

Salimpur denied that his site represents or serves the interests of anyone other than the Tajik people who, he said, lack access to credible news and analysis.  

Western donors fund Akhbor

Publishing in Tajik and Russian and funded by Western donors, Akhbor covers issues relating to Tajiks across Central Asia, Russia and beyond. It does not have any full-time staff inside the country but relies on an extensive informal network of activists, bloggers and stringers.  

Steve Swerdlow, a U.S.-based human rights attorney who has been monitoring the Tajik media landscape, said Akhbor was a useful source of independent news.   

Akhbor is one of the news sites I turn to on a daily basis to track the most important developments in Tajikistan,” Swerdlow said.  

“Since founding his small but scrappy outlet in late 2016, Salimpur elevated Akhbor into one of the best sources for daily, independent news on Tajikistan available, often uncovering what the Tajik authorities do not want to disclose.” 

Swerdlow believes the court’s decision was punishment for Akhbor’s critical coverage of the government’s response to the pandemic.  

COVID-19 cases confirmed

The country’s health ministry Thursday confirmed Tajikistan has 15 cases of COVID-19. 

Akhbor’s series of articles covering President [Emomali] Rahmon’s persistent denial of the reality of the virus and his decision to regale himself with mass celebrations of thousands of people around the Nawruz holiday in late March greatly angered the authorities,” Swerdlow said. 

The Ministry of Culture referred VOA to the Supreme Court ruling. It did not respond to a follow-up request for comment. The National Association of Independent Mass Media did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Edward Lemon, professor of Central Asian studies at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, told VOA he views Akhbor as an independent news website.  

“The website presents information that is independent and often critical of the government. As with other media outlets, they can be somewhat sensationalist and spread stories that are not accurate,” Lemon said. 

“But when Radio Ozodi went through its period of not being critical of the government, Akhbor was a go-to source on information for many, and broke key stories like the arrest of business magnate Radjabali Odinayev in 2017,” he said. 

'We cover corruption'

Salimpur told VOA that the prosecutor’s office did not contact Akhbor before opening a criminal case against it.  

“They aren’t banning us because they associate us with the opposition,” Salimpur said. “One or two stories out of our 500 reports on our site are about those groups. They’re blocking us because we cover corruption and other deeply rooted problems.”  

Some local media said they see the ban as a political move. Journalist Zafar Sufi, a columnist and founder of the media group Ozodagon, said he believes the Supreme Court ban highlights Akhbor’s independence.   

“The government watches it and acknowledges its output. The chief prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court through their actions are basically recognizing this as a serious platform. … Its honest and deep coverage, quest for transparency and justice are being recognized by the state,” Sufi commented on his Facebook page.  

Blocking preceded ban

Even before the ban, Akhbor was subjected to blocking. Accessing the site inside Tajikistan requires use of a VPN. Salimpur’s main concern is the safety of the site’s users and followers.  

VOA asked Tajik legal analyst Shokirjon Hakimov about measures that could be taken against those relying on Akhbor or working for it informally.  

“As of this moment I know of no cases where readers or visitors of the site have been punished. But one may encounter trouble if authorities catch you promoting or spreading content about extremism or terrorism or commenting on them,” he said.   

Hakimov thinks the ban will harm society, since no one benefits from losing access to information.  

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the ban, calling it "blatant censorship.” 

“[The ban] potentially puts people’s lives in danger amid the coronavirus pandemic, when independent media is more important than ever,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia coordinator.  

Reporters Without Borders ranked Tajikistan 161st out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which 1 is considered the most free.