Attacks on the Press 2003: Turkmenistan

In 2003, Turkmenistan’s megalomaniacal dictator, President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, continued to tighten his grip on the country’s politics, natural resources, and the press.

A wave of political repression against Niyazov’s real and imagined opponents followed an alleged assassination attempt against the president on November 25, 2002. The president escaped unharmed, and some Turkmen journalists and opposition activists living in exile have speculated that Niyazov orchestrated the attack himself to create an excuse to persecute sympathizers of the exiled Turkmen opposition.

In the weeks following the alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov arrested government officials and relatives of exiled opposition activists on suspicion of involvement in the attack. In December 2002, state media publicized the suspects’ reportedly forced confessions, and in January 2003, dozens of them were sentenced in political show trials to 25 years or life terms in prison.

In April, Niyazov issued a presidential decree revoking a Turkmen-Russian dual-citizenship agreement, making it easier to extradite exiled opposition activists and journalists living in Moscow back to Turkmenistan for prosecution. The decree sent a chill throughout the Turkmen exile community in Moscow. According to press reports, Turkmen officials have asked Russia to extradite Orazmuhammet Yklymov, a Moscow-based journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), claiming he was linked to the assassination attempt against Niyazov. Turkmen officials have also asked Russian and Swedish officials to extradite opposition activists in connection to the assassination investigation. So far, however, no journalists or opposition figures have been forced to return from exile.

The government uses its control over all Turkmen newspapers, radio and television stations, and the state printing company, Turkmenmetbugat, to promote Niyazov’s Soviet-style cult of personality. Political dissent is not tolerated, and the Committee for the Preservation of State Secrets is responsible for prior censorship of the media.

The president personally appoints editors of media outlets, and approval from Niyazov’s office is required before newspapers can be printed and the evening news can be broadcast on state television. Self-censorship is ubiquitous; only journalists writing in overseas publications under pseudonyms are safe from intimidation, persecution, torture, and imprisonment.

Access to foreign news and information remains extremely limited. In July 2002, the Communications Ministry began blocking the delivery of Russian publications to Turkmen subscribers and officially terminated their subscriptions a month later. Customs officials check all written material passing through borders and confiscate anything that criticizes the government.

Programming from Russia’s state-run Channel One is delayed for a day so that Turkmen officials can examine and censor the content before it airs. Authorities temporarily blocked access to Russian-language cable television in July 2002 and again in September 2003 in response to programming that criticized Turkmenistan. Some people with enough money have installed satellite dishes to circumvent government interference.

The government regularly denies accreditation to journalists working for international media. In March, the State Service for the Registration of Foreigners was established to intensify surveillance of foreign correspondents, who are allowed to visit the country on rare occasions.

Russia’s state-run Radio Mayak and RFE/RL do provide alternative sources of information, but citizens say they listen to them in private, at their own risk. Officials refuse to give interviews to RFE/RL, and in December 2002, authorities detained a man interviewed by RFE/RL and sent him to a psychiatric facility for two months.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service journalists working in Moscow and Turkmenistan remained under government surveillance. On September 2, Shanazar Berdyev, a Moscow-based RFE/RL stringer and son of a prominent opposition activist, was attacked and severely injured at the door of his apartment in Moscow by an assailant dressed in a police uniform, according to RFE/RL. On September 11, National Security Ministry agents detained Ashgabat-based RFE/RL stringer Saparmurat Ovezberdiyev for two days, threatened him with 20 years in prison, and injected him several times with an unknown substance, RFE/RL reported.

The online media have fared no better than the rest of the country’s press. The state-run TurkmenTelecom is the country’s only Internet service provider. Restrictive application procedures, high costs, heavy monitoring of e-mail, and blocked access to a growing list of news and opposition Web sites keep the Internet in the government’s choking grasp.

While the rest of the world focused on Iraq and the U.S. “war on terror,” Western human rights organizations criticized the United States and its allies for repeatedly overlooking Niyazov’s atrocious human rights record in exchange for 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.