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Tajikistan: Telecoms Blackout Amidst Provincial Clashes

The murder of a senior Tajik security official on July 21, 2012, has triggered deadly clashes in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan province (GBAO) between government troops and the supporters of a local strongman whom the authorities blame for the assassination. The clashes have left the region's residents cut off from the outside world.

Since July 24, Internet, mobile, and landline connections to GBAO have been cut. As a result, Tajikistanis outside the province have had little reliable information about the situation and the extent of human suffering in GBAO.

As the Tajik government attempts to control information coming out of the region, death toll estimates have varied widely. Official sources suggest that 40 people have been killed since the beginning of the government security operation in the province. Of them, nine are government troops, with the remaining being the rebels, including eight Afghan nationals. Yet, some news agencies report that the number of civilian casualties is higher than the official sources report.

Badakhshani expatriates have responded to the blackout by pooling what information on the conflict becomes available in public Facebook groups and calling on telecommunications companies to restore connections to Khorog (aka Khorugh), the provincial capital.

One Facebook group, Stop the Military Action in Khorog, compile reports on the clashes in GBAO. Group members share the latest news on the crisis and discuss media reports. Many Tajik users have replaced their Facebook profile pictures with the ‘Stop the Killing’ sign. Overall, the conflict has dominated discussion in major Tajik groups on Facebook over the last week.

Young Badakhshani expatriates also held demonstrations in some major cities abroad, including Russia's Moscow and St. Petersburg, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Almaty in Kazakhstan, London in UK, and New York in USA. Protesters demanded that all forms of communication be restored to GBAO.

Below is a video from a peaceful picket held in front of Tajikistan's embassy to the United States, in Washington, DC, on July 26. The video was uploaded by user sanjarmann on July 27, 2012.

A similar event was held in New York. The video below was uploaded by user Pamir TV on July 26.

http://youtu.be/SzQYnfxEnkQ

Below is a video address to the Tajik authorities recorded during a protest held in front of the Tajik embassy in Moscow. It was uploaded on YouTube by Pamir TV on July 25.

http://youtu.be/2WNi-__C4sM

A child holding a banner at a peaceful picket held in front of the Tajik embassy in Washington, DC. Screenshot from video uploaded July 27, 2012, by YouTube user sanjarmann.

Banner from the picket held in New York. Screenshot from video uploaded by YouTube user Pamir TV on July 26.

A number of Tajik citizens have also sent an open letter [ru] to the government telecommunications agency, demanding the full restoration of Internet, mobile, and landline connections to the province.

TCell, one of the largest mobile phone companies and the most popular service provider in GBAO, has been bombarded with requests for re-connection. One user, Kesh Pallaev, asked [ru] on the company's Facebook page:

Здравствуйте Почему нету связи с Хорогом? Как мне дозвониться до своих родных? Если в течение часа не будет связи то я и еще несколько тысяч людей откажемся от ваших услуг.

Hello. Why there is no connection to Khorog? How can I call my relatives? If the connection is not restored within an hour, I and  thousands of other users will discontinue using your services.

To which a TCell staff responded [ru]:

Действительно на сегодняшний день предоставление услуг связи и доступа к интерент в регионе ГБАО РТ по техническим причинам временнно ограничено. Мы сожалеем о причиненном неудобстве для наших абонентов и надеемся на восстановление связи в полном объеме в ближайшее время.

Indeed, [mobile and landline] connection and the provision of Internet connection to GBAO has been discontinued for technical reasons. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused to our customers and we hope that the connection will be fully restored soon.

Omil Ximera then wrote [ru]:

‎по техническим причинам” ????? za kogo vi nas prinimaete?

For technical reasons? Who do you take us for?

Aziz Imomnazarov suggested, in Pamiri:

Dath companiyaen yedand aibdor nist. Khubath abor churt thed chidom kompaniyard khush idi vamand celiy viloyatand svyaz maved. Id fuk az tarafi vazorat idora sod.

This is not the company's fault. Just think about it, a mobile operator cannot be interested in restrict the connection to the whole region. They had to do it because the government requested them to do so.

A group of Tajik citizens has also launched an online petition, calling on the Tajik government to restore the connection. The petition has been published on the social action platform Change.org. Below is an excerpt from the petition:

We plea for help from the international community. We believe that the situation calls for immediate intervention by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, European Union, governments of democratic states from West and East, whose missions are present in Tajikistan but so far have been silent. We believe that the actions by the Tajik authorities represent violations of the commitments and obligations of the Republic of Tajikistan under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other UN human rights instruments, the OSCE Human Dimension Commitments and the Fourth Geneva Convention, and hence, are subject to immediate review by the UN Security Council and the OSCE Permanent Council. We plea for support and call for pressure on the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan to announce a permanent and complete cease-fire and restore all communication channels.

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