The headline of Open Asia Online’s most popular story in Tajikistan speaks volumes: Homosexuals in Tajikistan: It’s Easier to Be a Drug Addict Than to Be Gay.
Open Asia Online is a journalism training and mentoring program and a shared news platform launched by Internews in partnership with nine local media partners in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
The article, written by journalist Liliya Gaisina for Open Asia Online in 2017, detailed the challenges faced by the LGBTI community in Tajikistan. It also marked the first time that Open Asia Online’s local media partner, Asia Plus, addressed the challenges faced by homosexuals in print and online, by publishing the article. They had previously shied away from the topic, as homosexuality is strongly condemned in Tajikistan, as in much of the region.
The reactions to this article reflected that condemnation. On Facebook, readers hurled slurs and threatened personal violence to those in the article.
A hostile environment slow to change
In much of Central Asia, rights and respect for LGBTI communities has gone from dismal to worse. Last fall, news emerged of an ongoing “registry” of LGBT individuals maintained by the Tajikistan government. In December, Amnesty International released a report exploring the increasingly discriminatory environment that LGBTI rights groups in four former Soviet states have faced in recent years. In the four countries surveyed, attitudes have hardened against LGBTI people, in part as a consequence of the repressive rhetoric and practices emanating from Moscow.
“LGBTI groups in each of the former Soviet Republics have faced a raft of repressive government tactics to silence their voices. With few exceptions, gay pride marches are consistently forbidden or become targets of attacks by homophobic groups, with the police often failing to prevent and investigate effectively hate crimes,” the report finds.
Though Open Asia’s story had strongly negative and violent responses, there were some commenters who expressed support. “I am surprised by hatred and a willingness to kill / burn / destroy … People, are you serious? Does sharia (Muslim religious law) allow you to kill? … Whom do they offend? Give them the right to choose, why do we have such judges for every decision?” read one of few more tolerant comments.
The story’s publication helped several in Tajikistan’s LGBTI community to contact activists outside of the country and receive advice and moral support.
The article also revealed that CSOs supporting the LGBTI community in Tajikistan are pressured to share confidential information about their beneficiaries with law enforcement organizations – a major, and possibly dangerous, infringement on individual privacy. Citing Open Asia Online’s reporting, these CSOs’ donor organizations initiated an investigation into these circumstances.
An earlier article about Milena, a transgender woman in Tajikistan who lost her family, friends, job, and safety when her community learned about her sexual identity, caught the attention of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). She had previously appealed to UNHCR with no response, but after Open Asia Online’s depiction of the dangers she faced due to being transgender, her case was reviewed as a priority. She has since been moved to safety in Sweden, where she is applying for permanent residence and hopes to lead a better life.
A commitment to respect
For her part, reporterLiliya Gaisina isn’t deterred from further reporting on the issue, and takes Asia Plus’s decision to publish the article in their print publication, which reaches a highly conservative audience, as well as publishing it online and sharing in social media, as a positive step. She also notes that just last month, Asia Plus republished a sympathetic video featuring a gay man who left Tajikistan for Germany. “The sheer fact that a local media outlet chose to pick up a story like this is evidence of Open Asia’s success in countering bias,” says Liliya.
Because she has personal friends in the LGBTI community, and has their trust, Liliya feels uniquely positioned to report on their struggles. “I will continue to write on this subject as the LGBT community in Tajikistan faces serious pressure; homosexuals are persecuted by their relatives, friends, colleagues and moreover by law enforcement agencies.” She also feels that if journalists don’t speak up, those who threaten violence will never be exposed or made to face any consequences, as the LGBTI community stays silent for their own protection.