Esfandiar Adena is the BBC Media Action Fellow at the Reuters Institute for
the Study of Journalism (RISJ) for spring 2013. He is currently working on a
research project at RISJ
 in Oxford on social media and governance in

The closer we get to the
November presidential elections in Tajikistan, the more hostile the polemic is
becoming between government and opposition. And it'
s the country's social media platforms that have become the battlefield for the most
savage skirmishes.

Slander and name-calling between heavy-handed critics of
President Emomali Rahmon and furious
pro-government cyber activists is common on the Tajik pages of Facebook.

But the online clashes have intensified recently in
reaction to a video leaked to K+ TV, a popular TV
channel in Central Asia.

Wedding scandal

Filmed during the wedding party of President Rahmon's son in 2009,
the video shows the president apparently drunk, singing and dancing.

The Rahmon wedding video on YouTube.
At one point in the video, after the head of the
state-owned radio and TV committee whispers something in his ear, the president looks at his watch and motions for guests to leave only to suddenly stop
them moments later, calling them back to their seats because they haven't yet been "served the main

"He cannot manage his own son's wedding party [so] how can
he manage a country such as Tajikistan?" was the mocking response of the President's long-standing
critic, Dadajan Atavollayev. A
journalist and leader of the Tajik opposition movement Vatandar, Atavollayev
has lived in exile in Moscow for the 20 years Rahmon has been in power. 

Atavollayev also used the video's broadcast as a chance to criticise
Rahmon for widespread corruption
, accusing him of
turning Tajikistan into a family enterprise, not to mention violating a
law - initiated and signed by the president himself in 2007 - which regulates spending on weddings and other ceremonies.

Opposition leader Dadajan Atavollayev criticising President Rahmon on K+ TV.

So widespread was the social media response to the video that, as one government official told me, people at "all levels of the government are
discussing the video and its consequences". 

The website of
TV channel K+ TV and YouTube were blocked in Tajikistan for two weeks in May and although it
cannot be independently verified, the government has reportedly detained a
number of people for leaking the video, including state TV journalists. 

"No more war!"

Pro-government voices meanwhile have taken up the
fight online, attacking Atavollayev with slander and threats and publishing poems and
caricatures mocking him as a "failed opponent of Rahmon who could never win the hearts
of people" and "who is envious
about the president's popularity and public appeal".

A caricature of Atavollayev on Facebook.

Atavollayev isn't the only opposition figure to attract such a response
online. An anonymous Facebook user, for example, recently published videos of a
bearded Tajik man having sex with a woman, identifying the man as opposition
Islamic Rebirth Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri.

Although the man in the video
bears no resemblance to Kabiri, some users condemned him in their online
comments for such a "heinous act". 

Such pro-government cyber activists deny any links with
the government. They say they don't like the way the opposition fights against "Janaab-i aali" – "his excellency", as they call President Rahmon – and accuse
critics of the government of being "foreign
agents" bent on bringing about another bloody civil war in the

"We don't want any more war. We don't want any more blood," said one
pro-government Facebook user, "For those who want rebellion in the country, we had
enough loss in 1992-1997! So… shut up!"

But the opposition claims that such pro-government
comments come from security agents whose task is to defame the opposition in
any possible way to win the propaganda war ahead of the elections. And they say
that such activity has only intensified after the online criticism of the
wedding video.

"Rahmon's family are so upset about [the reaction to the
video] that now they want to eliminate me at any cost and in any possible way," claims
Atavollayev. "They spend huge money to defame and disfigure opposition
politicians on Facebook."

"Smell of iPad"

On one hand, President Rahmon has publicly recognised the
potential of new technology.

According to his own spokesperson, he marked National
Youth Day in Tajikistan on 23 May by handing out iPads to a crowd of more than
2000 young people – and attracted criticism from the opposition who claimed
he was out to buy young people's online favour. (His largesse also led to an ironic new
online catchphrase – “You
smell [of] iPad” – used by
critics of the government when attacked by pro-government voices.) 

But on the other hand, Rahmon has repeatedly spoken out
against the widespread use of mobile phones.

In the same speech on National Youth Day, he repeated his
opinion that mobiles damage health, citing "scholars in Ireland" whom, he says, "have proved that
mobile use causes fatigue, disorientation, sleep disorders and low immunity" and increases
the chance of brain tumours. 

He also added that the number of mobile users in
Tajikistan has reached 10 million (when the country's population is 8

Access to the internet

The president's figures might not all add up but as I wrote in my
previous blog, Rahmon's right about the boom in mobile phone usage in a poor
and mountainous country where people have no other reliable means of

Mobiles have not just made communication easier for
people so isolated and disconnected from each other. They also fill the
information gap by providing easy access to internet and social networks.

And as we've seen, easy access to such social media networks have
opened up a whole new platform for debate.

The BBC Media Action fellowship at The Reuters
Institute for the Study of Journalism is funded by the Global Grant from the UK
government's Department for International Development.

Related links

Esfandiar's previous blog: New
media in a new Tajikistan

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

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