Changing media and politics in Tajikistan
Esfandiar Adinabay is the first ever Reuters journalist fellow from the Central Asian Republic of income-poor and internet-poor Tajikistan, which used to form part of the Soviet Union.
Esfandiar, who works for the BBC World Service's Persian Section out of the capital Dushanbe and was sponsored by BBC Media Action, has written a very comprehensive study of the potential and actual role of new and social media in bringing about social and political change in his country.
In his paper called 'Changing media and politics in Tajikistan', Esfandiar examines whether the growing access to new communication technology has resulted any changes in people's lives. He looks at how new media tools are filling the information gap caused by the lack of access to traditional media, such as TV, newspapers and radio stations; and how new ideas and concepts about democracy, human rights and freedom can reach the population through new media technology and whether these are able to make the government more accountable.
In the course of his research he interviewed a number of intellectuals, journalists, politicians and government officials. He also interviewed a random sample of Facebook users from Tajikistan and abroad, including some of the vast number of Tajik labour migrants in Russia. He selects case studies related to mobiles and Facebook, because the former is the most widespread tool of communication in Tajikistan and the latter the most popular place where Tajiks converse with each other and discuss a variety of issues of relevance to their country. In one example he examines, the use of mobile phones to spread videos of torture victims did help to hold the authorities to account.
In his conclusions, Esfandiar quotes the author Clay Shirky's statement that 'the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere – change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months'. In Shirky's words, as the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, and as people gain greater access to information, there will be more opportunities to engage in public speech and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.
Esfandiar argues that although the presidential election at the end of last year did not bring about any serious change in Tajikistan, it was a milestone for social media discussions that may help – in the longer term - to bring about social and political transformations in the country. He says the growing usage of communication devices, such as mobiles and iPads, which provide more opportunity for interaction and conversation, will facilitate the flow and exchange of information as well as coordinated action.
He concludes that 'although Tajikistan's internet penetration rate is not as high as that of some other developing countries, the growing expansion of the internet, social media and other communication tools is inevitable. In other words, the hope of preventing the impact of the new (social) media in many countries and societies is a futile one.