Three months ago a report by Peter Leonard in Eurasianet.org and an “open letter” organized and presumably written by Edward Lemon and published in OpenDemocracy.net started a campaign of false, unfounded and misleading allegations directed against me, Abbas Djavadi, the former Central Asia Regional Director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (“RFE/RL”) and Sojida Djakhfarova, the former director of RFE/RL’s Tajik language service(locally known as “Ozodi”). These allegations are based on unfounded claims and rumors, personal and subjective conclusions of the authors and are defamatory. The main goal of this campaign which was originally launched by the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (“IRPT”), was the replacement of RFE/RL’s managers in charge of Ozodi and Central Asian services.
On April 2, 2019, I resigned from my position as RFE/RL Central Asia Regional Director for the following reasons:
- In the best interest of RFE/RL and to avert increasing pressure on this great organization arising out of the said campaign;
- In defense of and the preservation of my 34 years of honest and dedicated service to RFE/RL; and
- With the hope that within a reasonably short period of time the truth will emerge, primarily through an investigation by the Inspector General Office of the U.S. State Department that RFE/RL has called for and which I personally am looking forward to beginning.
The allegations against me and Mrs. Djakhfarova included (a) “collusion” with Tajik authorities and intelligence officers to “water down” the contents of Ozodi in favor of the authoritarian government of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and (b) giving a “frosty treatment” to the locally banned IRPT. To “establish” those allegations, three implicit “corruption” accusations were also raised in relation to the recent move of Ozodi’s office to a new location in Dushanbe and RFE/RL’s affiliation with a local radio station – both said to be owned by Tajik president’s relatives. The allegations were meant to suggest, directly and indirectly, that as former managers we may have financially benefited from (1) the move of the office to a new location, (2) the signing of a contract with a local radio station to broadcast a 10-minute daily news shows, and (3) by having a “soft tone” in treatment of the Tajik government and “avoiding interviews with the leader of IRPT”.
The authors (1) refer to unfounded claims and rumors by some anonymous former or current Tajik staff members; (2) quote me as allegedly saying things that I have never said and; (3) point to some “editorial issues” in a dozen of Ozodi articles and news in the past 12 months that have nothing to do with those primary allegations of “collusion” and “corruption”.
As to the allegation of “collusion” and implied “misappropriation” regarding RFE/RL’s affiliation with a local FM radio in Tajikistan and relocation of our Dushanbe bureau:
All RFE/RL affiliation contracts with local media or relocation of local bureaus fall under the authority of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM, formerly BBG) and, specifically, the International Broadcasting Board (IBB) and RFE/RL’s Technology, Security and Bureau Administration offices, respectively. Content managers such as regional directors or service directors have only an advisory role in these matters.
Still, in the chapter “Follow the Money” of his article, Mr. Leonard, after talking in detail about the bidding and finalizing of the contract of Radio Imruz and its rent, quotes me allegedly asking Tajik staff members to produce “softer” and “only cultural” programs for broadcast on this local Tajik FM radio.
To be present on Radio Imruz was and is important for us to reach out to the people in Tajikistan, to inform them and refer them to the wider content of our web and YouTube programs. Ozodi tailors this 10-min news magazine specifically for Radio Imruz.
While it is true that some of our 10-minute news bulletins were taken off the air for allegedly “criticizing the government and making Tajikistan look bad”, we decided to tailor this magazine more carefully to save the program from being dropped all together by the Imruz managers. It is outrageously false to claim that this was done to please the Tajik government for any financial benefits or any political gesture.
As to the allegation of a “soft tone” towards the authoritarian government of the Tajik president.:
In 2015, after a military rebellion and the alleged “coup attempt” by the Islamic party IRPT against the Tajik government, pressure against the opposition radically increased. Most of critical media were shut down and their reporters were imprisoned and put under pressure. Six Ozodi reporters of our Dushanbe bureau also lost their work permit and we suspected that the RFE/RL Dushanbe bureau could be closed.
The IRPT was banned in Tajikistan and its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, put on a “black list of terrorists”, something that the Islamic party and Mr. Kabiri categorically rejected. Unlike governments or international organizations, we as media are not in the position to designate any individual or group as “terrorist”. In our assessment one major “red line” of the Tajik government was (and I believe still is) creating any impression of support for the IRPT, including interviewing its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri. So, yes, it is true that Ozodi did not directly interview the Tajik Islamic party’s leader, Mr. Kabiri (whom Mr. Leonard describes as “soft-spoken and well-shaved”). Nevertheless, this was not to follow the Tajik government’s designation of him or his party as “terrorist”, nor to please Tajik authorities in any form. The purpose was to avoid a dramatic situation that would probably end our operation in Tajikistan. Wrong or right, we considered a direct interview with Mr. Kabiri a high risk for our continued presence in Tajikistan. At the same time, Ozodi used any and every opportunity to point to pressure, persecution and torture against members and supporters of all opposition parties, groups and media, including the IRPT. There are hundreds of reports and interviews alone in the last year to offer as evidence.
As to the allegation of my “regular communication with Tajik authorities and security officers:
First, I see no reason why we should not be communicating with authorities of a country we operate in. We even need to do so. In the case of RFE/RL bureaus, it is usually the local bureau administrators and journalists who have the most communication with local authorities. We in Prague headquarters are not exposed to much communication with local authorities.
Secondly, in the last ten years I had only one meeting with a Tajik government official. It was in 2015 in Dushanbe where I met with a Tajik deputy foreign minister called Nizomiddin Zohidi in Dushanbe to try to ease pressure on our operation in this country. This effort was partially successful. Our website remained blocked and our journalists were kept under indirect pressure such as question/answer meetings with Tajik foreign ministry officials. But our reporters whose work permits were revoked returned to work and our office continued its operation without any direct interruption. This was, in my belief, thanks to our flexible approach.
Later in 2018 I had two brief telephone conversations with somebody called Khurshed (I do not know his second name) from Tajik Foreign Ministry in charge of foreign media. These calls were forwarded to me by our Dushanbe office and our service director. One was about a claimed “factual error” in a report of Ozodi about a military commander of the Tajik army who joined the so-called “Islamic State” group (“ISIS”). Khurshed said that the commander was not, as Ozodi reported, from the security ministry but from the interior ministry of Tajikistan. The second case was about a request to remove a report on our Ozodi website about an anticipated terrorist attack on a Russian military base in Tajikistan. In the first case I agreed to check the objection and eventually correct the factual error, if proven. And we checked and corrected the factual error. In the second case I declined to remove the article that was confirmed by our own sources in interviews. I also said to Khurshed that we never permit outside interference with our editorial decisions. I cannot see any wrongdoing in these rare contacts.
As to a dozen of “editorial issues” allegedly indicating a “collusion” or “corruption”:
Most of these objections are inaccurate or half-true and just three of them reasonable. Discussion about editorial issues is a daily practice of all media and journalists. Ozodi produces more than 6,000 articles, reports, interviews and news stories every year. Numerically, the articles and news stories objected to are about a dozen or two. Even considering all objections to those reports and stories as valid, they represent only an irrelevant share of Ozodi’s total annual content and can impossibly be considered as typical for Ozodi’s program. More importantly, these dozen “editorial issues” have nothing whatsoever to do with false allegations of “corruption” and “collusion”.
A Political Campaign
Referring to unfounded claims and raising editorial issues in a dozen of Ozodi articles and news as “evidence” for allegation of “collusion” and “corruption”, accompanied by persistent calls for change of the Ozodi managers clearly point, in my view, to a political campaign, rather than concern about the content of Ozodi. This campaign was originally initiated and clearly supported by the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, IRPT, and then taken over by Messrs. Leonard and Lemon.
This campaign was to weaken Ozodi’s voice through defamation and replacement of its managers, not to strengthen it. IRPT media celebrated our retirement in April as one of this Tajik Islamic party’s “big victories in 2019”.
Our Content and Impact
For decades, Ozodi has been offering this service to the people of Tajikistan and I am very proud of having accompanied this great operation for some years.
In view of the extremely risky and restrictive environment of Tajikistan, Ozodi provides an invaluable service to the public in Tajikistan, badly needed now even more than ever. Ozodi is acting as one of very few media outlets, if not the single one, providing independent news and information alternative to the official and semi-official media which use the one and same voice of praise about the government.
In 2018, Ozodi achieved record numbers on all platforms. Its YouTube channel had 200 million views and 600 000 subscribers, its websites achieved 19 million visits and 55 million pageviews, and its videos were viewed 14.3 million times on Facebook.
This is the single voice of the Western democratic world in Tajikistan – in their own language.
Ozodi’s voice needs to be supported and not defamed and maligned by unfounded allegations and rumors weakening it. Weakening this voice and the voice of RFE/RL is a disservice to the brave people of Tajikistan who need and appreciate it.
Ozodi and RFE/RL are part of the USAGM operation, generously funded by US. Congress. Nothing is more reasonable now than for the U.S State Department’s Office of Inspector General to undertake a thorough and swift investigation of those allegations. I whole heartedly support and welcome such an investigation.
In this way, I am hopeful that the truth behind what has transpired will result in the debunking of the baseless and unfounded allegations by Messrs. Leonard and Lemon, as well as clearing my good name and repairing some of the damage I have suffered to my professional reputation and finances.
Dr. Abbas Djavadi is a former Central Asia Regional Director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL. The author resigned from RFE/RL on May 31. The views expressed in this rebuttal are not binding for RFE/RL.