Despite widespread poverty, Tajikistan has seen a boom in mobile phones in recent years. Competition among provider firms has slashed call charges, and mobile networks get round all the difficulties of a crumbling landline infrastructure.
It therefore came as a surprise when President Imomali Rahmon announced at the end of April that mobile phones were a health risk and their overuse should be discouraged.
At an April 30 cabinet meeting, the president instructed the health ministry to inform the public – especially the younger generation – about the health risks posed by handheld phones.
A week earlier, the president had identified another drawback of mobile phone use. He said there were over a million phone owners in Tajikistan, each spending between 50 and 600 somonis a month (from 11 to 135 US dollars) on calls. That amount of money, he said, was “a drain on the financial resources of every Tajik family”.
The president’s comments sparked a series of programmes on state television highlighting the physical effects of using mobiles too much.
The next step was taken by the authorities in Dushanbe and other towns, who placed restrictions on billboard advertising by mobile companies. Many adverts were taken down within the space of a few days.
The move caused consternation, and not only among mobile providers and advertising companies.
Economist Hojimuhammad Umarov said the ban was absurd and illegal. “It violates the fundamental principle of a market economy – free competition,” he said.
“We were surprised at news of the ban on advertising mobile companies, said Kakhor Aminov, an economist at the Asian Development Bank mission in Dushanbe. “It goes against all international standards and market economic principles.”
Shodi Shabdolov, the Communist Party leader and a member of parliament, pointed out that the president never called for any kind of ban, just moderation in the use of phones.
“If a company is advertising legally, no one can prohibit or even restrict this,” he added.
Tajikistan’s liberal mobile phone market means it now has six provider companies, most of them set up with foreign investment. Russian phone companies hold majority shares in two and China has a controlling stake in another.
Competition has brought prices down and allowed technological advances – Tajikistan was the first Central Asian state to introduce 3G services.
An advertising ban, if introduced formally, would hit advertisers as much as the phone companies.
“Adverts by these companies account for a large proportion of our budget,” said Marat Mamadshoev, chief editor of the Asia Plus newspaper. “We aren’t planning to abandon this advertising – at least, not until a court rules that we cannot carry it.”
This is not the first time the authorities have tried to curb mobile phone use. In 2008, on President Rahmon’s recommendation, parliament ruled that schoolchildren and college students must not carry their phones on them during lessons.
Shokirjon Hakimov, an opposition politician and legal expert, suspects the government has a hidden agenda – to limit public access to easy communications.
“It’s no secret that the authorities are fearful of this [mobile phone] area expanding,” he said. “Suffice it to recall that the world found out about events in Kyrgyzstan [April 2010 revolt] and Iran [2009 protests] through mobile phone communications.”
For others, such regulations are merely an unwarranted intrusion into private life, similar to other decrees banning excessive spending on weddings and funerals, and forbidding teachers from having gold teeth.
“Sadly, the experience of recent years shows that the moment the president makes some critical remark on any subject, parliament or another agency immediately try to curb constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and freedoms, by amending the law or other forms of legislation,” said Faizinisso Vohidova, a human rights activist from the northern town of Khujand. “In Tajikistan, as the proverb goes, if you ask for someone’s turban, they’ll bring you his head. So the president only has to suggest using mobile phones in moderation, and the authorities immediately introduce a ban.”
Jahongir Boboev is the pseudonym of a journalist from Tajikistan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.