Attacks on the Press 2002: Turkmenistan

The magnitude of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s cult of personality might even astonish the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin. A golden statue in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, honors Niyazov, who is called “Turkmenbashi,” or “the Father of All Turkmen,” and his portrait graces the country’s currency. In 2002, Niyazov’s birthday was declared a national holiday, and he renamed the months of the year, dubbing January “Turkmenbashi” in his own honor.

Niyazov’s authoritarian regime maintained its iron grip on Turkmenistan’s politics, economy, and press. The oil- and natural gas-rich country has no free or private media; freedom of expression and political dissent are not tolerated. The state-controlled media barked and bit on command in 2002, denouncing out-of-favor officials and exiled political opponents while consistently exalting the head of state. Journalists could write freely only in overseas publications under heavily guarded aliases.

During 2002, the government tightened control of the Internet and other outside sources of information, blocking Web sites of an Azerbaijani daily, the Turkmen opposition in exile, several Russian dailies, and the Moscow-based Information Analytical Center Eurasia, an independent research organization.

The Russian press also endured Niyazov’s censorship. In April, Turkmen officials seized two issues of the Moscow-based daily Komsomolskaya Pravda containing articles by journalist Nikolai Varsegov, who criticized Turkmenistan in writings about his recent travels there. In mid-July, authorities began blocking delivery of Russian publications to Turkmen subscribers, officially terminating those subscriptions a month later. Also in mid-July, Niyazov closed the privately owned cable system that transmitted foreign satellite broadcasts into Turkmenistan, claiming the system operated illegally. Critics say, however, that Niyazov wanted to block critical voices and foreign and nonstate sources of information.

During 2002, Niyazov dismissed and arrested numerous state officials, including ministers and security officers, for alleged corruption and drug smuggling. He also
dismissed the heads of the state’s Coordination Council for Broadcasting and Turk-
mentglekinofilm–the state television film production company–for unspecified
“professional shortcomings.”

A wave of detentions followed a November 25 assassination attempt on Niyazov. (He escaped the attack on his motorcade unharmed, although some of his entourage suffered injuries.) Niyazov charged political oppositionists living abroad and a Turkmen businessman as the main culprits in the plot. Leonid Komarovsky, a Russian journalist who was in Turkmenistan on a business trip unrelated to journalism, was detained, most likely due to his connections with opposition figures. Several international reporters and pundits have speculated that Niyazov orchestrated the attack in order to prosecute his political enemies.

International human rights and press freedom organizations lambasted Niyazov’s repressive regime in 2002. A report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted that “the notion of freedom of speech is completely and utterly
absent in Turkmenistan.”

For the United States and its allies, however, with Turkmenistan becoming strategically important in the “war on terrorism”–particularly to U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan–concerns about the country’s human rights record took a backseat to geopolitical interests. The United States and its allies have overlooked Niyazov’s atrocious human rights record in exchange for getting permission to station troops in Turkmenistan to service cargo planes en route to Afghanistan, and to build a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to South Asia via Afghanistan.

April 4

Komsomolskaya Pravda

Turkmen officials seized two April editions of the Moscow-based daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which journalist Nikolai Varsegov criticized Turkmenistan in writings about his recent travels there. The Turkmen government also blocked access to the newspaper’s Web site.

Beginning July 16, Komsomolskaya Pravda subscribers stopped receiving
newspapers and magazines published in Russia. According to international reports, Turkmen customs officials seized periodicals delivered from Russia. In mid-August, the Turkmenistan Communications Ministry announced it had stopped delivering Russian publications to the country.