Internet Filtering in Tajikistan in 2006-2007

Note: a newer version of this profile is available at Country Profiles: Tajikistan.

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Background

The Internet in Tajikistan emerged as the country was ending a bloody civil war that followed the demise of Soviet rule in the early 1990s. The resulting fragmentation of power also meant that Internet services were developed largely without state interference and the Ministry of Communications played a weak role in the development of the sector. Internet as well as telecommunications services remained fragmented up until the end of the 1990s, with several companies failing to interconnect because of fierce (and at times violent) competition. During the period of instability, Internet service providers (ISPs) were aligned with feuding political and economic interests that spilt over to the competition among the ISPs themselves.

Internet use among Tajiks has been increasing, but remains relatively low (1.19 percent) despite government efforts to make information communications technology (ICT) a pillar of national development. Opposition media are not actively exploiting the Internet’s potential, but this is largely because of the low levels of penetration and the lack of a mature critical mass of Internet users. None of the registered opposition parties have domain names registered in the “.tj” Internet zone, and only one has its Web site available in Tajik.1 The incumbent president, who recently started his third seven-year mandate,2 exerts a degree of control over the independent media while suppressing the opposition with prosecutions based on broad and inconsistent interpretations of the relevant laws.3

Internet in Tajikistan

The rate of Internet penetration in Tajikistan is estimated between 0.075 percent4 and 1.19 percent.5 Empirical data show the number of active Internet users to be growing rapidly, with estimated total numbers that are higher than the Ministry of Communications’ estimate of 26,000.6 The discrepancy in figures probably arises from the hesitancy of most commercial ISPs to disclose accurate user statistics in order to avoid a per user charge. No official data exist on the number of personal computers in Tajikistan. Khoma,7 a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), estimates that 1 percent of households own personal computers and over 1 percent of those access Internet from home, mostly using dialup technology. Access via DSL and Wi-Fi technologies is affordable only to a handful of companies. Satellite connection is widely used and few ISPs use Mach 6 technology to connect mountain towns and district regions. The state-owned telecommunications company Tajiktelecom built a connection to the Trans Asia Europe (TAE) fiber-optic highway passing through Uzbekistan; however, ISPs prefer to use their own infrastructure. The Internet exchange point in Tajikistan, managed by the Association of Tajikistani ISPs, connects only four of the eleven ISPs.

Internet access remains largely unaffordable, as the average monthly salary in the country amounts to USD30–40, while the minimum salary drops to USD7. The price for one hour of Internet access in cybercafés is USD0.41; unlimited monthly traffic by dialup access costs USD29.41 and limited ADSL access costs USD25.8

Most Internet users are young and access the Internet through cybercafés close to schools and universities. In January 2006, Ministry of Communications estimates found some 400 cybercafés, most concentrated in large cities. The cybercafés, operating as second-tier ISPs, need to obtain licenses before starting their activity. Although over 70 percent of the population resides in rural areas, the Internet is mainly accessible in urban areas because of poor infrastructure and low affordability. A 2005 study by CIPI shows a great disparity between the percentage of men accessing Internet (77.5 percent) and that of women (22.5 percent).9

Tajik is the official national language. However, Russian is the most popular language for Internet use. The most-visited Web site in Tajikistan is mail.ru, and the most popular search engines are rambler.ru, google.com, yahoo.com, and yandex.ru.

Legal and regulatory frameworks

The Tajik top-level domain name was registered with Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) in 1997 but the domain name was later suspended as it was used mainly for registering pornography sites. In 2003 the domain name registration was delegated to the Information and Technical Centre of the President of Tajikistan Administration, a state entity that now supervises registrations within the “.tj” domain.10

The Ministry of Communications requires all ISPs to obtain licenses in order to operate. Currently eleven first-tier ISPs are actively providing Internet service in the country.11 The ISPs do not reveal information about their bandwidth because these data are a legally a protected commercial secret. This protection extends to the countries from which the connection originates. ONI data reveal that most ISPs have two points of access, one located in Russia and the other in Western Europe. The majority of ISPs are eligible to provide Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services under an IP-telephony license.12 Recent amendments require VoIP service providers to obtain a special license from the Ministry of Communications.

The main state entities regulating Internet in Tajikistan are the Security Council (SC), the ICT Council, and the Ministry of Communications. The president of the republic, however, remains the key authority, ratifying the main legal documents in the IT sector and directing ICT policy in the country. The SC controls the implementation of the State Strategy on Information and Communication Technologies for Development of the Republic of Tajikistan (E-Strategy). The SC monitors telecommunications, including Internet, for national security reasons. The ICT Council13 is responsible for implementing and coordinating work under the E-Strategy and advising the president. The Ministry of Communications is the main regulator in the telecommunications industry and is empowered to issue licenses for any related activities. The government adopted the Conception on the Information Security,14which serves as a platform for proclaiming official views, principles, and policy directions to preserve state information security.

The government restricts the distribution of information that contains state secrets and other privileged data that intend to “discredit dignity and honor of the state and the President,” or that contain “violence and cruelty, racial, national and religious hostility…, pornography… and any other information prohibited by law.”15 The provisions of this regulation are broad, allowing state agencies wide discretion in their application. The control over information security is assigned to the Main Department of State Secrets and the Ministry of Security.

Tajikistan does not have an official policy on Internet filtering. However, state authorities have been known to restrict access to some Web sites at politically sensitive times by communicating their “recommendations” to all top-level ISPs. Prior to the 2006 presidential elections, the Communications Regulation Agency issued a “Recommendation on Filtering” advising all ISPs that “for the purpose of information security” they should “engage in filtering and close access to those Internet sites that are directed to undermining the state policy on information sphere.”16 As a result, several oppositional news Web sites hosted in Russia or Tajikistan were inaccessible to Tajik users for several days.17 Although the officials offered unclear reasons for shutting down the Web sites, independent media foresee that the list of affected sites might grow in the future.18

ONI testing results

ONI tested in Tajikistan on three key ISPs: Babilon-T, Tajiktelecom, and Telecomm-Technology. The tests revealed no direct evidence of filtering for any of the selected categories. Nevertheless, ONI did document the sporadic filtering of political content during the 2006 presidential election.

Considered the most conservative Central Asian country, with a predominantly Muslim population, Tajikistan does not technically filter access to pornography sites. However, accessing such sites in public centers is illegal. Any such access may be penalized with a fine ranging from USD15 to 100 as provided in the Administrative Code and may be prosecuted under the Criminal Code. Based on ONI’s investigation, we concluded that currently most cybercafés do not employ any filtering applications to limit access to information. However, cybercafés routinely monitor users to ensure they do not visit forbidden sites.

Conclusion

Although the government has adopted an e-strategy aimed at developing information society and employing ICT potential for spurring economic growth, it does not seek to encourage independent online publishers, journalists, and bloggers. Media freedom is widely challenged and subject to de facto censorship, although the constitution provides that “state censorship and prosecution for criticism are forbidden.”19 Filtering is unlikely to be declared as an official policy since Tajikistan depends on international aid. The Tajik government, however, has in place policies and instruments to maintain firm control over the distribution of information, particularly before elections. The government is engaged in developing programs aimed at restricting citizens’ Internet access, following on from President Rahmonov’s message “Western values aren’t always applicable” to Eastern countries.20

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