- - Friday, March 16, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Internet users and providers in Tajikistan are voicing concerns about online censorship after the government lifted a six-day ban on Facebook and several news websites last week.

“I assume the reasons for blocking Facebook is that its Tajik segment has become very active recently,” said Parvina Ibodova, president of the Association of Internet Providers in Tajikistan.

“There are many groups and pages that discuss current issues in Tajikistan, including politics. Moreover, prominent opposition figures actively use Facebook in their daily work.”

On March 2, Bek Zuhurov, deputy minister of transport and communications, ordered Tajikistan’s Internet service providers to deny access to several websites, including Facebook, for “technical and maintenance works.”

Facebook has about 30,000 users in Tajikistan, said Ms. Ibodova, who believes the websites were blocked because they contained content critical of the government.

Tajikistan’s government previously has blocked certain websites, but this month’s action marked the first time the country’s 1.9 million Internet users were denied access to a major social media site.

Dunja Mijatovic, who specializes in media freedom for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, wrote to Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi on March 5 expressing concerns about free speech on the Web.

“The Internet should remain an open public forum for discussion and free expression of opinions, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Ms. Mijatovic said. “In this letter I also expressed hope that access to Facebook and the four news websites would be restored without delay.”

News sites blocked by the goverment included zvezda.ru, tjknews.com and maxala.org.

In an interview with local online news service Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Mr. Zuhurov said the decision to block the websites had been made “to create order in the Internet.”

“Lately the internet is becoming like a black market,” Mr. Zuhurov said, adding that his department was concerned that journalists are being paid to criticize the government by parties aiming to “create chaos among the people.”

Khurshed, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his safety, is one of more than 2,200 members of the Facebook group “Platforma,” who regularly exchange views on Tajik politics online.

He believes the Tajik government may be increasingly wary of online dissent following recent events in the Arab world.

“Everyone knows that social networks played a significant role in so-called Arab Spring,” said Khurshed, adding that the government, under President Emomali Rahmon’s control since 1994, “had negative perceptions of the revolutions in Arab nations.”

A recent poll commissioned by the government showed that 55 percent of Tajik citizens are concerned about corruption.

What’s more, the Central Asian country ranked 152 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index last year, and Freedom House deems the Tajik press “not free.”

Dissatisfaction with Mr. Rahmon’s government has not led to any clear signs of unrest. Analysts say that, since a five-year civil war ended in 1997, Tajik citizens have little appetite for conflict and often perceive Mr. Rahmon as a peacemaker.

Still, blocking social media sites hasn’t gone down well among locals. While Facebook was blocked, calls for public protest were posted on the Platforma page.

“Almost all users of Facebook [in Tajikistan] are advanced Internet users,” said Khayrullo Mirsaidov, a Facebook user in the capital city of Dushanbe. “Therefore, they use censorship-bypassing tools like anonymizers and proxy websites.

“Moreover, due to this blocking, Facebook users in Tajikistan became even more active and now the social network is full of criticism of authorities.”