Attacks on the Press 2001: Turkmenistan

In a region where freedom of the press and free expression are endangered concepts, the authoritarian regime of President Saparmurat Niyazov still manages to set a horrible example. Niyazov often takes his repression to absurd extremes. In April, for example, he banned opera and ballet from his country on the grounds that they are “alien” to Turkmen culture.

Niyazov also works hard to maintain a Soviet-style cult of personality. On October 19, the government adopted Rukhnama, his 400-page book of moral commandments based on Turkmen customs and traditions, as a national code of spiritual conduct. Delegates to a May conference of the Humanitarian Association of Turkmen in the capital, Ashgabat, bestowed on Niyazov the title Turkmenbashi the Great, though they stopped short of elevating him to the status of “prophet” after Niyazov professed to be weary of overly lavish praise.

The state controls all publishing and broadcast licenses, and Internet access is only available through the state provider, Turkmentelecom. In late March, Niyazov berated Turkmenistan’s media outlets, saying that television in particular failed to reflect the nation’s traditions and culture. On April 4, he restructured the state’s media monopoly by abolishing the national broadcasting corporation and establishing three new television channels and three new radio stations. The channels are controlled by the Coordination Council for Broadcasting, which was created at the same time and answers to the Turkmenistan Cabinet of Ministers.

Turkmenistan has 10 Turkmen-language publications and one in Russian. A few Russian newspapers are also available, and the government carefully selects five hours of material for the country’s one Russian-language television channel. In late April, a supplement to the Russian-language newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan titled Serdar Yeli (The Way of the Leader) was immediately withdrawn because it had been published without official permission. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Turkmen service correspondent Saparmurat Ovesberdiyev was searched at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on February 27. Customs officials found US$4,000 in false notes in the journalist’s luggage, which Ovesberdiyev believes one of the officers planted. After five hours of questioning, he was released without charges.

Few dare to speak out against a regime that routinely persecutes political and religious dissidents. A handful of Turkmen journalists write for foreign publications, but only under pseudonyms. Government security forces regularly refuse reporters entry to events sponsored by other countries, such as embassy parties or corporate press conferences, and journalists often face reprisals if they travel abroad. The Council for the Supervision of Foreigners also controls outside influences by strictly monitoring the activities of all international visitors.