Among all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan stands out as having the most repressive climate for journalists. President Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, “father of all Turkmen people,” has created a personality cult not seen since the days of Stalin.
In the capital, Ashgabat, a huge statue of Niyazov dominates the city center. Niyazov’s picture adorns the country’s currency and the front page of every newspaper; towns and villages have been renamed after him. On December 29, the rubber-stamp legislature appointed Niyazov, the head of the country’s only political party (inaptly named the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan), Turkmenistan’s president for life. Parliamentary elections, held in mid-December, were declared a farce by the international community.
It is not surprising to find that under such conditions press freedom is totally absent. The state controls all publishing. In February, the government adopted a new regulation requiring all publishing houses, along with printers and copying establishments, to obtain a state license and register their equipment. Foreign correspondents are rarely allowed to visit the country, and those who obtain permission are limited in their movements. For all these reasons, it is often difficult to confirm reports of attacks against the few journalists who occasionally speak out.
The West has considerable leverage with oil- and gas-wealthy Turkmenistan. Western countries have sought to help Turkmenistan exploit its energy resources and develop pipelines under the Caspian Sea, with the aim of limiting Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Thus far, Western governments have failed to extract human-rights concessions in return.
Criticism of the government is allowed on rare, scripted occasions. Free-lance critics risk grave consequences. On January 29, the National Security Committee (successor to the KGB) broke up a meeting of journalists in Ashgabat who had gathered to launch an independent press association. The names of all present were taken down, and five journalists were temporarily detained. One of the journalists at the meeting, Galina Shipotkina, was subsequently dismissed, without explanation, from her job at the state-owned newspaper Neutralny Turkmenistan.
In March, Nikolai Mitrokhin, a reporter for the Russian newspaper Panorama, who had published critical reports about Turkmenistan after several previous trips to the country, was deported to Uzbekistan from the Turkmen city of Charjew.
In August, CPJ spoke to Yovshan Annakurban, a Turkmen journalist who had been granted political asylum by Norway. Annakurban fled Turkmenistan in 1998 after receiving threats about his work as a correspondent for the Turkmen-language service of Radio Liberty, one of the only sources of independent news in the country. In July 1999, Niyazov declared Annakurban an “enemy of the state.” His family remained in Turkmenistan and has suffered as a result. Immediately following Annakurban’s departure for Norway, his brother-in-in law, Murat Bykelov, was fired from his job as a correspondent with Turkmenistan National Television (TNT). And in August, his brother, Chari Annakurban, was fired from his part-time position at TNT.
Annakurban still faces charges of treason and revealing state secrets after a diskette allegedly containing military information was planted on him and then “discovered” by customs officials at Ashgabat airport in July 1997. If he returns to Turkmenistan, he could face either execution by firing squad or a 15-year prison term.