APPOINTED PRESIDENT FOR LIFE IN DECEMBER 1999, Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov heads an increasingly authoritarian and isolationist regime. Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, or “father of all Turkmen people,” ordered the burning of new history textbooks last year for not sufficiently emphasizing the Turkmen people’s historic role in the development of Central Asia and Europe.
Meanwhile, state television launched a new serial on August 7. Entitled “Turkmenbashi’s Epoch,” the program devotes five hours a day to glorifying Niyazov’s deeds. At the same time, persecution of political and religious dissidents, including imprisonment and torture, were accompanied by increasing restrictions on freedom of expression last year.
On May 29, the government moved to regulate the Internet, as the Ministry of Communications rescinded the licenses of the country’s five private Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This action gave Turkmentelecom and other state communication entities an information monopoly in the country, since the state already controlled all publishing and broadcast licenses.
The ISP takeover destroyed successful competitors to a state-run service that had attracted less business than the better-run private ISPs, whose clients included embassies, the Central Bank, international non-governmental organizations, trade representatives, and local information services. Given Turkmenistan’s dismal economic straits, few journalists were in a position to take advantage of the Internet, but after the ministry’s ruling, independent access to the outside world was further diminished.
One of the private ISPs, Ariana, launched in 1995 with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development, protested the ministry’s move. Ariana founder Vagif Zeynalov appealed to the international community for support, but despite his best efforts, authorities closed down the company on June 30.
On June 15, Niyazov approved the creation of a Council for the Supervision of Foreigners, jointly run by the National Security Committee, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This council institutionalizes the already strict surveillance of the activities of all foreign nationals visiting or residing in Turkmenistan, including journalists.
On August 17, Turkmen officials ordered Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondent Saparmurat Ovesberdiev to stop working. The authorities claimed he lacked accreditation, although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had granted permission for RFE/RL journalists to work in the country. Ovesberdiev’s activities had been closely monitored for some time before the ban was imposed.