Poets, Litigious Academics and the Media in Tajikistan

March 24, 2014 • Press Freedom • by

This article has been amended.

A newspaper editor in Tajikistan is locked in a legal battle with academics over her right to publish an opinion piece.

Olga Tutubalina, editor  of the country’s most popular newspaper, Asia-Plus wrote an opinion-based blog post on the newspaper’s website in May 2013 about a Tajik poet Bozor Sobir who had once been a vocal critic of the country’s government, but had recently changed his stance. Sobir lived in the USA for over 20 years but had recently returned to Tajikistan.

Tutubalina suggested that the poet’s opinion of the government had been affected by the fact that he had been warmly welcomed back by the country’s president. She used a quote , supposedly by Vladimir Lenin, who compares intelligentsia to ‘feces of society’.

The article caused a storm in Tajikistan. Some supported her and others felt she crossed a line by offending a large group of people just because she disagreed with one person.

Three individuals along with three state institutions – Academy of Science of Republic of Tajikistan , The Union of Artists, Composers, and Architects of Tajikistan, and the country’s Union of Writers – sued the newspaper and Tutubalina for the quote, arguing that she had offended them. Bozor Sobir himself played no part in these legal proceedings and made no comment on them.

The plaintiffs asked for an apology and about 200 000 Somonis (about 30 000 Euros) of compensation for ‘moral sufferings’. The judge at the Firdavsi District Court ruled against Tutubalina in February, but reduced the amount of compensation payable to 30 000 Somonis (about 4 500 Euros). The Judge also ordered the newspaper to publish a rebuttal, rather than apology but the newspapers editorial team say they do not fully understand the form a rebuttal should take in this case. The case prompted the European Union Delegation and the OSCE office in Tajikistan to express concerns over press-freedom in the country.

Last week, Asia-Plus appealed against the ruling at the Dushanbe city court.

The General Director of Asia-Plus Umed Babakhanov  told EJO he is almost sure that the newspaper was being punished for numerous articles that were strongly critical of law enforcement bodies, the judiciary, and the government of Tajikistan. He sees the court ruling as an attack on the freedom of speech. “It’s a question of principle. We think that journalists, just like any other citizens, have the right to freely express their opinion. We really do believe that intelligentsia is not fulfilling its mission in Tajikistan,” he said.

He added: “Those who are trying to teach us a lesson are working against our country and the society. Until now the relative freedom of press was almost the only achievement Tajikistan has made, and after such ‘court decisions’ we risk to lose even that.”

This article was modified on 25 March 2014, to clarify that Sobir has returned permanently to Tajikistan from the USA.

Photo credit: SalFalko / Flickr Cc

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