Redactions and Red Lines: A frightening trend of growing censorship in Tajikistan
The creative community in Tajikistan is grappling with self-censorship. When asked about the current state of artistic freedom in the country, Z*, a Dushanbe based visual artist and curator, responded:
“The situation with freedom of speech has become much worse in the last couple of years, which is why artists severely limit themselves in their statements, create works with a heavily veiled message, or use the language of allegory.”
Z attributes this growing fear among artists to the recent arrests of independent journalists and filmmakers in the country and the disproportionate sentences being meted out to them.
On October 4, 2022, Tajik journalist and documentary filmmaker Avazmad Ghurbatov, professionally known as Abdullo Ghurbati, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison under charges of association with political extremists. The sentence, which received widespread condemnation, was delivered in a closed-door-trial, leaving little to no information for public knowledge.
Ghurbatov, known for his award-winning filmmaking and his work on social justice issues in Tajikistan, collaborated with blogger and journalist Daleri Imomali. They ran a popular Youtube channel (with over 145,000 subscribers) on citizen rights issues in the country. Two weeks later, Imomali was convicted on charges of illegal entrepreneurship associated with his Youtube channel, receiving a sentence of ten years imprisonment.
The cases of both Ghurbatov and Imomali are part of a growing trend of persecuting artists, journalists, and human rights defenders for false charges such as the “participation in activities of banned political parties and organizations,” penalized under Article 307 of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code. These convictions however, are only the latest manifestation of the disturbing attacks on free speech and artistic freedom that have long plagued the people of Tajikistan.
For years, Tajikistan has been considered a battleground for pro-democracy actors. Dating back to 1992, and the beginning of President Emomali Rahmon’s rule, Tajikistan’s people had endured decades of severe restriction on civil liberties and freedoms. The government has often resorted to tactics such as abductions, forced extraditions, unlawful detentions and has more recently, introduced internet shutdowns, as a means to control the exercise of rights to free speech and expression.
These continued waves of systemic oppression have long served as a barrier for the creative endeavors of many Tajik artists. In a 2019 interview with PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), Tajik writer, photographer and filmmaker Anisa Sabiri, explained that “already back then, I realized that I cannot publish everything I want to say, and I had a lot to criticize about the system." Sabiri most notably made the 2018 award-winning film “The Crying of Tanbur'' that tells the story of a young boy’s journey to reconcile with the sudden death of his journalist father against the backdrop of the country’s descent into civil war.
Tajikistan’s charged political atmosphere due to the government’s ever tightening grip of authoritarianism, has led artists to believe that they have no choice but to silence themselves. As a response to this growing climate of fear, Z shared that there have been significant setbacks in the subject matter and support given to exhibitions and art projects in the past decade.
For instance, Z shared that in 2011 a curator and artist had been called in for questioning by Tajikistan’s National Security Committee over their animated film that was critical of the Tajik government project to create the tallest, free standing flagpole in central Asia. All traces of the film have since been removed.
“If at the beginning of the 2000s it was possible to hold exhibitions and public art events, though not quite easy, and the artists could talk about a wide range of problems in their works, now it is practically impossible to do that,” Z explained. “There is no market for contemporary art as such in the country, and those projects that are initiated by some of the few contemporary artists are funded by international organizations. And the concepts of these projects do not run counter to the official ideological line of the government.”
“The Tajik creative community is poorly informed on issues related to human rights, emergency assistance and the safety of artists, due to total self-censorship.” said Z, who witnesses the creative community being forced into deeper silence with every passing day.
In November 2021, the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region (GBAO) protests erupted in the aftermath of the killing of Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, 29 and a member of the Pamiri ethnic minority, who had allegedly assaulted a public official. Tajik authorities have been widely criticized for their aggressive response to the protests, which included the use of live fire on protesters and an immediate internet shutdown in the region. Deemed “Not Free” under Freedom House’s index, Tajikistan has long imposed restrictions on free and independent media, the GBAO protests have seemingly prompted an increase in the attacks on free thinking citizens, especially targeting members belonging to the Pamiri ethnic minority – many of whom have been the victims of unfair, closed trials without proper representation.
Tajik authorities have increasingly sought to regulate internet access and free speech, turning to methods like an anti-extremism law amended in 2020 with vague definitions of extremism, thereby allowing authorities to freeze bank accounts and suspend online communications without prior trial, and anti-fake news legislations which curb any criticism of the country’s mismanagement of the pandemic. Unfortunately, such tools are widely used across Central, Southeast, and South Asia as confirmed by ARC’s 2022 report, “Connecting the Dots: Artist Protection and Artistic Freedom in Asia,” which shares insights and findings from a closed regional workshop convened in November 2021. Cases like that of Maria “Bambi” Beltrane, a Filipino filmmakers and activist, detained under the Bayanihan to Heal as One law in response to her facebook post on COVID mismanagement in Cebu, Philippines, is one of several that have inspired a growing mistrust of anti fake news laws and digital security legislations. The report also emphasizes the growing anxieties around the internet, art and activism with countries ramping up the regulation of digital spaces – an inference also highlighted by the Civicus Monitor ratings, where several Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, impose further restrictions aimed at censoring critical online content.
Has this deterred artists and cultural practitioners from questioning the status quo? It would seem not, with many claiming to have evolved their practices in alignment with a renewed sense of purpose, surpassing either utility or aesthetics alone. “Art just for art has run out of usefulness. I was transformed through my art,” shared a Kazakhstan-based curator and visual artist who is one of the ARC workshop participants cited in Connecting the dots.
The grizzly socio-political climate of Central Asia may also be fertile ground for birthing cross-border solidarity movements among different countries, such as in the case of Uzbek film-maker, Saodat Ismailova and her Central Asian research group and artist collective DAVRA, which includes artists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Tajik activists, artists and journalists continue to receive unjust prison sentences – some have received life sentences, while others have received sentences ranging from 10 to 30 years. There is an imperative need to put an end to the invasive regulation and monitoring of media, free speech and creative expression in the country. This begins with the government amending and abolishing legislations like the anti-extremist law, in an effort to rise to internationally held standards of media and artistic freedom.
While efforts have been made to sound the alarm bells internationally, there needs to be greater initiative in highlighting and amplifying the work being done by human rights defenders and artists in Tajikistan. Capturing conversations like these with artists like Z, and their contemporaries offers us a glimpse into how cultural rights defenders regularly put themselves at risk with the intention of highlighting the atrocities faced daily, by the people in Tajikistan.
By creating and curating artworks that are critical of authoritarian regimes, Tajikistan’s artists continuously live under the threat of persecution – a threat that is often underrepresented at a larger global scale. It falls on international bodies like the United Nations, cultural and human rights organizations alike, to advocate for stronger protection mechanisms to be instituted for the benefit of artist activists in Tajikistan and the diaspora, and to uphold the rights of artists as cultural rights defenders in recognition of their powerful impact in the struggle against authoritarian regimes.
* Name changed to protect the confidentiality of the interviewee
By Manojna Yeluri, March 7, 2023. Manojna is the Asia Regional Representative at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and is based out of India.