Tajikistan: On/off, on/off: Tajikistan Suppresses Social Media. By Abdulfattoh Shafiev.

Abdulfattoh Shafiev, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

CAAN-Logo-FThis article was produced in cooperation with CAAN (Central Asian Analytical Network). The detailed version of this material is expected to be published in the Democratizatsiya journal of the George Washington University in June 2015.

During 2012-2015 social media was shut down about 15 times in Tajikistan for as long as three months, was used as the main informational weapon by the opposition groups against the Tajik authorities, served as the main platform to mobilize citizens in defense of human rights, and frequently took the country’s name into the top news of the top world media.

The frequency social media was shut down in Tajikistan since 2012, the wide use by opposition groups and active netizens, as well as increased self-censorship of the local media due to perceived threats that it has are evidences of the important role social media plays in rise of voices in Tajikistan.

Social media in Tajikistan as everywhere in the world are extremely popular and beat all records in attracting readers and getting views. Due to the increased self-censorship of the traditional media and lack of access to the state and independent media, activists and opposition groups more and more use social media as a tool to agitate their ideas. These groups range from the Tajik IS jihadists to secular oppositional movements and to the simple ordinary activists. In the light of the growing popularity and influence of social media on population of the country, the Tajik government employs various techniques to silence certain platforms and individuals; however, it hasn’t come up with measures to control its content on regular basis rather than blocking and unblocking social media platforms. That might change as it seems, the army of trolls, known as “volunteers” and who seems have ties with the government’s secret agencies, are becoming the main tool to silent the dissatisfied voices.

Precedents

The most popular social media platforms used in Tajikistan and by the Tajik diaspora are Odnoklassniki (about 2,5mln users), VKontakte (more than 200,000 users), and Facebook (about 100,000 users).Facebook and Odnoklassniki brought thousands of social network users together in protest against the arrest and jailing of oppositional movement Group24 leader UmaraliQuvvatov in December 2012, and again on behalf of prominent businessmen and founder of new political party TojikistoniNavZaydSaidov in April 2013. The official Facebook and Odnoklassniki pages of Quvvatov and Saidov,Gruppa 24 and TojikistoniNav, respectfully, played a huge and vital role in attracting the attention of society to the legal proceedings and issues surrounding them, and increased the number of their supporters. This is particularly true in the case of Saidov. Attention to his case is considered the biggest achievement of civil society.

In last two years there were three attempts to move virtual mobilization of the netizens into the real streets in Dushanbe through social media. In April 2013,Gruppa 24, a political opposition group founded in late 2012 in Moscow by a Tajik business tycoon UmaraliQuvvatov and heavily propagated before on Odnoklassniki and now in Facebook and YouTube, planned a protest in Dushanbe. While in their Odnoklassniki page more than 400 people said that they would attend the protest, the event failed. It should be noted thatUmaraliQuvvatov was murdered in Istanbul on March 5, 2015 and his wife and two children survived a poisoning attempt. At the end of the same 2012, a bid in Facebook to gather protesters at the High Court building of Tajikistan to protest against the court of new political party leader Zaid Saidov was equally unsuccessful, although Tajik police were noticeably prepared for the event with special anti-protest Jeeps.

But, the third attempt deserves a special mention. A third wave of protests propagated widely via social media in Tajikistan brought notable protests by Tajik diaspora in Moscow, Ekaterinburg, and other Russian cities against the Tajik president in 2014. Government fears of a rumored protest to take place in Dushanbe on October 10, 2014 resulted in the appearance of armed vehicles in Dushanbe, the blocking of dozens of websites country-wide, and the complete shuttering of internet access in the north part of the country, disabling texting service throughout the country on the scheduled protest day, tightened security, simulation of protest dissolving by armed security in the center of Dushanbe, and accelerated court hearings  to list  Gruppa24 as an illegal, extremist group. In subsequent days, President Rahmonorganized a meeting with the leaders of the Tajik diaspora groups inviting most of them to Dushanbe, as well asseveral other high-ranking officials flew to Russia to meet with the Tajik diaspora, hoping to ease tensions.

While online actions had previously translated into inaction outside of the virtual world,the political voice of the people of Tajikistan has undeniably grown louder in social media. The gravity and seriousness of the perception of social media as a threat to authorities in Tajikistan pushed them to act accordingly to control the online activities of opposition activists.

Response

During the period of 2012-2014, about 15 cases of blocking internet and particularly social media have been publicized. Almost every time Facebook, YouTube, and Odnoklassniki were blocked without giving any legal and sometimes without any logic reason too. In most cases, blocking followed an event such as military action, which the government did not want publicized; or when articles, audio or video leaks, or discussions that make the government uncomfortable, appeared online. Authorities claimed technical difficulties were to blame each time the blockings occurred, subsequently denying any state orders for censorship. Yet a written order from the government to block sites, as well as a less official phone text messages from the Communications Service to ISPs were published by media outlets. But later it was impossible to track the reasons behind blocking waves, as they were unlinked to any event or leaks of visual or text materials making the ruling regime uncomfortable. The possibility that the values and choices of individual middle level officials who felt it was their prerogative and duty to block sites when something was amiss on the internet cannot be dismissed.

Tajikistan continues to live under the shadow of its 5-year civil war. Government officials frequently appeal to the collective memory and fears of civil war, warning that views on the internet could cause a new violence. More recently, Syria and Ukraine has been used as example by the supporters of Internet blocking to justify the actions. Frightening the society from the possible violence and war and its horrific consequences has become the main propaganda tool to explain the government actions in controlling the flow of information and online discussions.

Blocking proved to be an inefficient way to fight against the spread of news stories and stop discussions in the virtual world. Large migrant outflows and a well-established Tajik diaspora abroad are critical players in Tajikistan’s online activism. Usually, a list of anonymizers, special software or web-sites to bypass the blocking, available via social media each time a popular site was blocked.

While internet blocking didn’t curtail online activism, the appearance of pro-governmental volunteers and active trolling in social networking groups and attacks on individuals did. Additionally, authorities started to deal with the social media owners. For example, in summer of 2014 Odnoklassniki was blocked for about a month and access to it was restored amid rumors spread via social media that all groups which actively agitated against the Tajik government had first been removed. The rumors appear to be at least somewhat accurate. For example, Gruppa 24, which first appeared in support of UmaraliQuvvatov and heavily agitated against the government, vanished. It is important to note that it would be impossible for the government to remove Odnoklassiniki accounts without the cooperation of Mail.ru Group. Another possibility is that administrators of the groups deleted the accounts. However it would be strange for administrators to delete the Odnoklassniki accounts which reach a wider audience, while at the same time leaving the corresponding Facebook groups operating.

In March 2015, Facebook released a new report showing the number of requests from the different governments about the Facebook users. There was no official request from Tajikistan though. Hence, a different approach was chosen to silent the critics and opposition on Facebook. A large number of users with fake names and pictures now defend state positions in Facebook. This special “army of trolls” known in Tajikistan as “volunteers” have being used to defend the government and emotionally attack the opposition leaders and society activists. So far, the Russian Federation has been known to use the troll army changing the online forums and social media into virtual battle scenes. There were cases of hacking the social media accounts of the opposition leaders and independent journalists with further discretization of them disseminating their private chats on intimate issues. The use of this tool especially increased on the eve of the parliamentary elections held in the country on 01 March 2015 and targeted mostly leaders of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan. Those, whose accounts were hacked, refuse the authenticity of the leaked chats, pictures, and videos, and accuse the trolls being behind of the hacks.

The appearance of dobrovol’tsy, coincided with an increased attention by state special forces toward active users of social networks.Users began gathering in closed digital spaces, making previously open public groups private, and choosing to associate online only with those they also knew outside of the internet. Those who do not want to keep their political thoughts bound within closed social networking groups sometimes assume fake identities to open new accounts, sharing their views and opinions with less fear. Other social media users exited social networks altogether or deleted contacts and personal information.

As of today, all social media are unblocked and no web site was blocked even in the eve of the parliamentary elections showing the “importance” of the parliament for both authorities and the society. Tajikistan’s online organization of protests added to evidence that planned protests don’t always materialize offline, indicating the safety of the digital commons does not always translate to the threat of violence in the public square.

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