“Particularly at times of national emergency, it is of utmost importance that the rights of expression and access to information are safeguarded – and yet the Tajikistani authorities are failing to ensure citizens have access to reliable information on the spread of COVID in the country, and, worse, they have introduced legislative changes which will punish those who share information about the pandemic which does not toe the government line”.
Brigitte Dufour, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
In March and April 2020, as the coronavirus spread rapidly across the world, the authorities in Tajikistan denied that it had reached their country. These claims were made in spite of numerous reports in the press and on social media indicating that large numbers of people were ill with a new respiratory disease; dozens of medical doctors were reported to have died and many hospitals were filled with quarantined medical personnel and patients, and penitentiary institutions were reporting numerous prisoners suffering from fever and respiratory problems.
Yet the government denials persisted: on 18 April, Jamshed Shohidon, the Deputy Health Minister, claimed that the spike in pneumonia cases was caused by the exceptionally rainy weather conditions. State television channels repeatedly told the public that Tajikistan was free from COVID-19 and doctors and independent journalists who reported their concerns about COVID-19 cases became targets of harassment and intimidation as officials urged doctors not to refer patients for testing.
Even after authorities officially confirmed the first COVID-19 infections on 30 April, on the eve of a visit of experts from the World Health Organization, they continued to blame the media for “spreading panic” among the population through its coverage of the pandemic.
On 4 July, in a move that further seriously reduced the freedom of expression in Tajikistan, President Rahmon signed new legislation stipulating punishments for distributing “inaccurate” and “untruthful” information about COVID-19 through the press or through social and electronic networks. There is widespread concern that in practice the only information which will be considered accurate and truthful is that provided by the government.
As of 18 August, according to official information from the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, Tajikistan has officially registered 8131 people infected with COVID-19, and 65 people have died from the virus. However, data from Tajikistan’s Statistical Agency shows an 11 per cent increase in the mortality rate from March to August 2020. The Statistical Agency claims that this is unrelated to the pandemic but admitted that a particularly high number of deaths were due to “respiratory pathologies or infectious diseases”. The number of officially confirmed COVID-19 deaths has been consistently lower than civil society estimates. The website kvtj.info, which is registered abroad, and which records cases of deaths possibly associated with COVID-19 has been blocked in Tajikistan since 11 May.
The developments and restrictions introduced during the pandemic in recent months in Tajikistan have prompted renewed concerns about growing restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms in the country. A briefing paper published by IPHR documents key trends with respect to the human rights impact of measures taken by the authorities following the outbreak of the pandemic in the country. The paper focuses on the government policies in relation to the pandemic, the crackdown on independent media and journalists, obstacles to access to information, the cost in terms of restriction of freedom of expression of misguided state efforts to prevent the “spread of false information”, a health care system barely coping and an alarming rise in incidents of domestic violence against women.
The report is available here.
See also IPHR’s recent report on the state of the healthcare system in Tajikistan:
See also our recent report on the limitations of press freedom in Tajikistan during the COVID-19 pandemic: