Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
“Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I’d meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I’d talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov’s visiting hours are Saturday’s from 10am to noon.)
Zukhurov would like to discuss with Zuckerberg his theory that Facebook users are being paid to complain about their leaders, which is keeping them from discussing more important issues: “For example, somewhere in Tajikistan there is no water or roads are bad or the weather forecast is incorrect. But users do not write about these [topics]. They write especially about money issues. I was told that the users who post critical comments about officials and entrepreneurs are paid $5,000 to $10,000 for doing this. I’m very surprised about how expensive the comments are.”
The following month, over a long weekend in December, Zukhurov blocked 131 sites, seemingly chosen at random, for “technical” reasons.
The latest, short-lived mass blockade lasted from December 21- 25, and had observers scratching their heads. Some believe Zukhurov is honing techniques intended for use during elections this coming November, when President Imomali Rahmon is expected to seek another seven-year term. Tajikistan has no independent television outlets and no daily newspapers, leaving the Internet as the sole outlet open to Tajiks to air criticism of the government. Others say Zukhurov is trying to demonstrate his value to Rahmon.
Zukhurov’s actions may have unintended consequences, contends former education minister Munira Inoyatova. “The blocking of web resources – especially social networks – is widely seen as impeding access to information and prohibiting free communication. These prohibitions always increase social tensions,” Inoyatova told EurasiaNet.org.
For many, the most memorable Zukhurovism was his explanation for a communications blackout in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan province last summer, scene of heavy fighting between government troops and local warlords: A stray bullet had taken out a cable, he said, severing all phone and Internet connections to the region for a month (he did not explain the simultaneous YouTube block).
The repeated attempts to cut Tajiks’ access to the Internet – and the nonsensical explanations – have drawn widespread criticism from diplomats, press freedom watchdogs, and Tajiks embarrassed for their country. Whatever Zukhurov’s motivations, he’s helping turn isolated Tajikistan into a black hole for media freedom.