In the Eastern Europe and Central Asian region (EECA), the space for civil society is constantly shrinking. Central Asia has one of the lowest rankings of civil and political freedoms in the world. This makes the work of many non-governmental organisations and activists more difficult.
A clear example of this can be seen in Tajikistan. In June the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) released a report demonstrating widespread denial of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and continuous threats to freedom of expression.
Until 30th April 2020, when a World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation travelled to the country to investigate the health crisis, the Tajikistan authorities maintained that no cases of coronavirus had been detected in the country. They adopted a range of preventive measures and only made available general information about the virus. Citizens, however, had pressing unanswered questions, as reports appeared on social media and from independent media outlets about a spike in deaths resulting from pneumonia, tuberculosis and typhoid fever in different parts of the country. Doctors faced harassment and intimidation as officials urged them not to refer patients for testing. Dozens of doctors were reported to have died and many hospitals were filled with quarantined medical personnel and patients. On 21st April 2020, 18 Tajikistani civil society organisations and independent experts sent a letter to the Ministry of Health and Social Protection of the Population of the Republic of Tajikistan urging it to ensure transparency about the epidemiological situation in the country. In her reply on 23rd April 2020, the Deputy Minister of Health did not confirm any cases of COVID-19 but rather stated that in the first quarter of 2020 fewer cases of pneumonia had been registered than in 2019. The first cases of COVID-19 were only officially announced on 30th April 2020.
No freedom of expression
A new Law on Counteracting Extremism signed by the President in January 2020 granted the authorities wide-ranging powers to restrict the rights to freedom of expression. In early 2020 all independent and privately-owned TV and radio outlets in Tajikistan were ordered to inform the authorities about their planned broadcasts each week – a move seen as a consequence of the new law on Counteracting Extremism. Shortly after the new law was signed, 113 alleged members of the banned Muslim brotherhood were arrested. Human rights activists expressed concern that those who were arrested were not allowed to contact relatives or receive independent legal assistance.
On 18th February 2020 the Supreme Court ruled to block the independent news outlet Akhbor after ruling that it offers a platform to “terrorists and extremists”.
On 16th April 2020 independent journalist Daler Sharipov, who frequently writes about controversial issues such as human rights and religion and has criticized government policies in these areas, was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on what are widely regarded as politically motivated charges. He was targeted in retaliation for his journalistic work.
Authorities block, and in some cases disable, websites, social media platforms and internet messaging platforms and internet access. These methods form part of the authorities’ toolkit used to put pressure on independent media outlets, bloggers and social media users, and to limit the dissemination of reports critical of the government.
The Lower House of Tajikistan’s Parliament approved amendments to the Criminal Code to penalize the deliberate spread of infectious diseases, including HIV.
Amendments are made to Article 207 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan regarding “Violation of sanitary and epidemiological norms and rules”. The penalty for the violation is two to five years, and in case of serious injury to health can reach five to ten years.
The Parliament also amended the Code of Administrative Offences. They refer to knowingly spreading inaccurate information about the Coronavirus pandemic in offline and online media and social media. The penalty for violating the law is from 580 somoni ($56) for citizens and up to 11 600 somoni ($1128) for legal entities.
Fearing punishment, organizations in Tajikistan, including NGOs, prefer to keep silent about state violations.
Shrinking of civil society
Civil society is not the only thing that’s been shrinking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare organizations working with key populations vulnerable to HIV, TB and viral hepatitis are constantly affected by strict governmental policies.
In 2017 AFEW International conducted an assessment to examine the extent to which decreasing space for civil society threatens the effectiveness of the response to HIV and related public health issues (i.e. the effects on harm reduction programs for people who use drugs).
The assessment focused on the consequences of the shrinking space for civil society in the EECA region for community networks of people who use drugs, as well as harm reduction and drug policy NGOs. The study also looked at the strategies civil society develops and chooses while its space for agency melts away. The coping strategies were identified amongst resilient harm reduction non-governmental organizations and community networks of people who use drugs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and can be defined by three categories – fight, hide and unite. These strategies were described in the report “We Fight, We Hide or We Unite: Coping strategies amongst resilient harm reduction organizations and community networks in the context of shrinking space for civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia”, published in July 2018. This research was a part of AFEW’s regional approach within the Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations project.
The research showed that civil societies in the EECA region’s countries struggle with limited political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression and associated rights. CSOs, particularly those opposing authorities, report serious threats to their existence and to continuing their activities, but also to the security of their staff. In most of these countries, it was also noted that restrictive laws on foreign funding and international collaboration have been introduced. For instance, the Law on Public Associations in Tajikistan obligates organisations to notify the Ministry of Justice about grants and other aid received from abroad.
AFEW International is concerned about the developments in Tajikistan and will continue follow developments in the country. Moreover, we will keep our strong commitment to advocating on internationally and supporting key populations at risk for HIV, TB and viral hepatitis in each and every one of the ongoing health crises in the region.