Tajik reporter and activist Mr Khayrullo Mirsaidov was sentenced to 12 years in a high-security detention facility in an attempt to silence the Tajik media cycle. Mirsaidov published a letter in late 2017 addressed to a number of leaders in the State in an attempt to draw attention to allegations that the new Department of Youth and Sports Head Olim Zohidzoda’s participation in corruption. Specifically, Mirsaidov called for an investigation into $1,000 USD of funds Zohidzoda had attempted to obtain as a bribe from Soghd District’s youth group funds. Since this inquiry, there have been ongoing investigations into the money’s location, meanwhile, Zohidzoda accused the reporter of embezzlement and an array of subsequent charges, leading to the July 11 sentencing. However, this only resurfaces the Tajik government’s 2016 attempt to completely censor the State’s media cycle.
Charges that Mirsaidov has been convicted for include embezzlement under Article 245:4(b), forgery under Article 304:1 and spreading of false testimony; Article 346:2(a) of the Tajik criminal code. However, the validity of Mirsaidov’s charges has repetitively been called into question by various non-state actors, with a total consensus that the charges are questionable and must be dropped. One organization spokesperson from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has expressed that these charges “[are] aimed at hindering his peaceful and legitimate human rights work, in particular for denouncing the corruption of local Tajik authorities,” further drawing attention to the corruption within this government.
Correspondingly, Mirsaidov was aware of the implications of publishing the letter, yet he insisted on publishing this piece in an attempt to draw attention to the Tajikistan government’s ongoing corruption. The period between the publication and his arrest, “he told me two things. One, that he of course, as an experienced journalist, would not have published such serious and potentially dangerous accusations unless he had proof. Two, that he was worried for his personal safety,” recalled Michael Andersen, a friend and former colleague of Mirsaidov over the course of the past 20 years.
However, this is not the first time the Tajikistan government has made headlines for attempting to silence the media. Despite freedom of speech and media laws within the State, any journalist who insulted the President could be imprisoned for up to five years, while insulting any other member of parliament could result in two years, noted on more than one occasion in the past five years. Furthermore, on another occasion, the government shut down Facebook and a number of other online networking sites in an attempt to suppress news of a police officer joining ISIS in Syria.
Through the continued punishment and withholding of Mirsaidov, a clear message is being transmitted to all media, journalists and free thinkers within Tajikistan. This act signifies the increasing threat of media censorship and trial under the current government. Furthermore, this recent sentencing of Khayrullo Mirsaidov, while unjust and unconstitutional has provided an opportunity for change. With the increased international attention on the government and pressure for unprecedented charges to be dropped, the state’s unorthodox punishment for an otherwise constitutionally legal form of free speech has come to light.