oDR: Feature

How the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border conflict is putting pressure on media

Since 2022 conflicts on the troubled border left three people dead and sparked protests over independent media

Altynai Mambetova
14 March 2022, 2.22pm
May 2021: personal belongings left behind in a Kyrgyzstani border village following fighting
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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have taken place at various intervals.

To this day, just over half of the approximately 1,000 kilometres of Kyrgyz-Tajik border territory has been demarcated – and this leads to frequent conflicts between the two countries’ armies. Unresolved issues related to the distribution of water and land, as well as illegal border crossings and confrontations over land access lead to fighting. In late spring 2021, more than 50 people died in a clash on the border.

Then, in late January and March this year, the conflict flared up again. Several civilians and military personnel were killed and wounded in the process. The lack of genuine dialogue between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over demarcating the borders, unfortunately, means that this conflict could easily continue in the coming months.

This lack of dialogue draws some of its roots in the media in both countries. Journalists have become entangled in the dispute, with outlets on both sides of the conflict struggling to provide balanced reporting due to unverified information circulating on social media and a lack of verified information from the border territories. The latter are in a remote, hard-to-reach province, and media outlets based in the Kyrgyz and Tajik capitals cannot monitor how clashes start and escalate.

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The fact that both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments seem to expect that the media should support ‘their’ side is not helping either. In turn, both governments uses nationalistic discourse to shut down independent voices; some citizens protest that this kind of interference represents a violation of press freedom.

A flood of unverified information

In Tajikistan, local residents in border territories and social media are the main sources of information when the conflict escalates. Reporters admit that they usually learn about the conflict from locals, who alert the media about the facts or share it using social media. Bahmanyer Nadirov, a Dushanbe-based journalist and editor for independent Tajik outlet Asia-Plus, confesses that “it is challenging to get official up-to-date information about the situation in the conflict zone, about casualties”.

As a result, Tajik journalists monitor the main media in Kyrgyzstan, which are largely available in Russian language, to get the other side of the story. They also subscribe to Kyrgyzstani media outlets on Telegram, a widely used secure messaging app, as well as following reports from the websites of Kyrgyzstan’s main news and government agencies.

“Sometimes we end up writing a news report based on information from Kyrgyzstani media, if we thought it carried important news but could not get the information from [the Tajik] authorities,” Nadirov says.

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(c) oguz dikbakan / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Journalists also struggle with misinformation and fake news. Rustam Gulov, a media expert in Tajikistan, explains how “it was quite scary [last] April because there was a flood of information from both sides, which had not been verified in any way.”

During the April 2021 conflict, anger on social media was fuelled by fake photos and videos that suggested tactical missile systems were being unloaded at Khujand airport, near the site of clashes on the Tajik side, or depicted supposedly ruined villages after the conflict.

As a result of the misinformation last year, Gulov says, there were only “a few outlets” in both countries that “one way or another tried to maintain balance and publish verified information”.

Instead, apart from US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Bishkek-based Kloop and several others, most media outlets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seem to repeat their government’s messages when it comes to the border conflict.

“Outlets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took a more subjective role of patriotic media outlets and focused on the negative aspects of the ‘enemy’s actions’,” said Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.

On 8 February this year, a post-conflict press conference by Tajikistan’s Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting illustrated this problem. “We have refused, we refuse and we will continue to refuse to publish any information directed against our state independence, the security and stability of our state, the formation of our nation, the self-consciousness of our people, our patriotism, our civil honour and dignity,” the committee’s head, Nuriddin Said, said, commenting that RFE/RL’s Tajik service “is not the same. They have different standards.”

By contrast, Marat says, the media could try “to report more objectively and impartially on the complexity of the conflict, on how both sides are part of the conflict, and what are the different responsibilities shared by both sides”.

Parviz Mullojanov, a political scientist and researcher in Tajikistan, says Kyrgyz and Tajik societies used to have more channels of communication between one another – which “helped to reduce emotions” in difficult situations.

But now, Mullojanov says, “the media in both countries are isolated from each other.”

“We observe the radicalisation of the media themselves and of journalists and eventually public opinion. This is very typical when a conflict is at a stalemate stage.”

An act of repression

The pressure on the media to follow the government line also escalated in Kyrgyzstan over the recent border conflict.

After one outlet, Kaktus Media, reposted an article on the border conflict by Asia-Plus, people organised a protest outside the outlet’s office and Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case into alleged “propaganda in service of war”. This is the first time this offence has been investigated in Kyrgyzstan, and the article will now be subject to a forensic examination before any further steps are taken. Journalists working for Kaktus have had to attend interrogations and give interviews to the authorities as part of the case.

The reason: the Asia-Plus article quoted a local resident on the Tajik side as saying the Kyrgyz military was the first to start shooting.

Marat says that the article “was more offensive to members of the government and the public” in Kyrgyzstan, and that “blam[ing] an independent outlet” was easier than engaging the Tajik side.

Protests outside Kaktus Media on 14 March. Source: Kaktus Media.

Following the protests and social media backlash, Kaktus Media apologised for reposting the article in an official statement. In it, Kaktus argued that there is “an information war going on, and in order to counter it, one must clearly understand what actions the other side is taking in this war”.

“The sole purpose of this publication is to show Kyrgyz society what kind of information policy the Tajik side is pursuing and what version of events the authorities are presenting to ordinary Tajik citizens,” the statement said.

Dina Maslova, the founder of Kaktus Media, told openDemocracy that when journalists in Kyrgyzstan cover the border conflict, they mainly publish the official press releases of state bodies. She said complaints about border coverage are a recent phenomenon compared to five or ten years ago.

“This time we see that there has been a deliberate pressure [on independent media]. We see that someone is monitoring [the media] in order to find evidence against them. And the coverage of this conflict was used as a pretext to start pressure,” Maslova said.

Following protests against the media in Bishkek, a group of activists and bloggers held a press conference where they demanded the adoption of Russia-style ‘foreign agent’ legislation against Kaktus, RFE/RL and Kloop. That legislation forces media and journalists that receive funds from abroad to mark their articles, websites and social media profiles with a‘foreign agent’ label, and is widely seen as a repressive tool.

Kyrgyzstan’s independent media community believes the post-conflict situation is another way of applying pressure on them following the recent (and brutal) attempt to detain an investigative journalist, Bolot Temirov, in Bishkek. Their social media accounts have also allegedly been targeted by hackers, albeit unsuccessfully.

Dina Maslova said that the current situation “makes independent media nervous, but it strengthens and unites us.” Media outlets and activists in Kyrgyzstan recently shared their support for Kaktus by initiating a media campaign with a hashtag #HandsOffKaktus.

“In normal life we are competitors,” Maslova said, “but in cases like this, we unite and help each other.”

Ultimately, the situation undermines the ability of independent voices to speak out openly about the conflict.

“This kind of patriotic or pseudo-patriotic vitriol undermines open discussion in Kyrgyzstan. But free and honest discussion is necessary,” Erica Marat says.

“There are many independent voices inside Kyrgyzstan who have a much more robust analysis of the dynamics at the border… They see a clearer, more complex picture on the ground, but they’re really not willing and not interested in speaking out publicly because just like Kaktus Media, they will attract nationalistic, angry crowds.”

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