Stop blocking websites in Tajikistan!

7128210The widespread blocking of websites in Tajikistan in recent days seriously impedes the free circulation of information in the country and violates the right of citizens to seek, receive and impart information online. We call on the Tajikistani authorities to immediately put an end to the practice of extrajudicial and arbitrary blocking of websites.

At the end of the first week of October, reports emerged that access had been blocked to hundreds of websites in Tajikistan. Websites that suddenly became unavailable to internet users in the country include social networks such as Facebook, Vkontake and YouTube, the email service, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, foreign news sites and many other sites, most of which still remain unavailable.

The government’s Communications Service has denied any responsibility for the internet outages. However, internet providers have told media that they have received informal orders to block access to websites. The current situation also fits into a larger picture. While these outages appear to be the most extensive ones to date, websites have repeatedly been blocked in Tajikistan in the last few years, without adequate explanation and without court decisions sanctioning such measures. Social media and news sites have been particularly frequently targeted. For example, YouTube has been blocked several times only in the past year. Also previously, internet providers have indicated receiving informal government orders to block access to sites, although the government’s Communications Service has continued to insist that it has not given any such orders. We believe that by implementing the unofficial orders of the Communications Service, local internet providers also violate the right of citizens to access to information, which is protected by both national legislation and international treaties ratified by Tajikistan.

In a number of cases, the blocking of websites has occurred in connection with specific political events when the authorities appear to have been particularly keen to prevent criticism of their actions. According to media reports, possible reasons for the recent blocking of websites may be the online publication of information critical of the authorities, as well as the online calls made by the opposition “Group 24” to hold an anti-government protest in Dushanbe on 10 October. On 9 October, the Supreme Court declared this group “extremist” and banned its activities on the territory of Tajikistan.

OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović has criticized the blocking of websites in Tajikistan on several occasions. In a press release issued in response to the recent developments on 7 October, she described this as “a worrying and disturbing trend” and said that the authorities “have a responsibility to ensure that all citizens of Tajikistan have unhindered access to information, offline and online.” She has also reminded the authorities of the country that any imposed restriction “should be defined by law, be proportionate and based on a court decision,” as set out in particular by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Tajikistan is a party. The UN Human Rights Committee, which supervises the implementation of the ICCPR, has likewise stressed that any restrictions on access to internet resources must be compatible with the strict requirements set out by article 19 and limited to specific content (rather than being applied as generic bans to whole sites).

International human rights experts have also warned against exploiting concerns about extremism and national security to impose measures that do not meet the requirements of international human rights law. For example, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression has pointed out that the restrictions on online expression on these grounds can only be permissible if they can be shown to be a necessary and proportionate response to a direct and imminent threat of violence. A resolution adopted this summer by the UN Human Rights Council, a subsidiary of the UN General Assembly, specifically calls on all states to “address security concerns on the internet in accordance with their international human rights obligations” to ensure protection of freedom of expression, freedom of association and other rights.

The authorities of Tajikistan should heed to the calls by international human rights bodies and:

  •  Ensure unhindered internet access for its citizens;
  • Refrain from limiting access to online content in arbitrary ways that are not compatible with their international human rights obligations; and
  •  Respect the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly as protected by international law.

Signed by:

The Association of Internet Providers in Tajikistan
The Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law (Tajikistan)
Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law
International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium)
The National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan
The Public Fund ”Your Choice” (Tajikistan)
The Public Fund “Nota Bene” (Tajikistan)
The Public Fund “Legal Initiative” (Tajikistan)
The Office of Civil Freedoms (Tajikistan)
The Human Rights Group “Amparo” (Tajikistan)
Equal Opportunities (Tajikistan)
Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights
Human Rights Center (Tajikistan)