Attacks on the Press 2004: Turkmenistan


Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s self-proclaimed president for life, continued on the path of international isolation and ironfisted dictatorial rule. State control over the country’s abundant natural gas reserves provided Niyazov with the financial independence to ignore international opinion, repress dissident voices, and intensify his cult of personality. In 2004, the government particularly targeted the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)—one of the country’s few independent-minded sources of domestic news—by harassing and detaining its reporters.

On May 3, International Press Freedom Day, CPJ named Turkmenistan one of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist” because of the government’s stranglehold over the domestic media and its intense persecution of independent news sources.

The Niyazov administration controls domestic newspapers and radio and television stations by appointing editors and censoring content. Unsurprisingly, the domestic media regularly produce effusive reports about Niyazov, his family, and his policies. In all of its programming, state television constantly displays a golden profile of Niyazov at the bottom of the screen; newscasters finish each broadcast with a pledge that their tongues will shrivel if their reports ever slander the country, the flag, or the president.

To avoid persecution, journalists refrain from reporting on widespread social problems such as poverty, government corruption, prostitution, and increasing drug use, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Public interest in state newspapers is low, and hundreds of copies remain unsold at kiosks. State employers often require their workers to subscribe to the official newspapers, deducting the cost directly from salaries, according to IWPR.

Reporters who occasionally contribute to international media and Internet sites typically use pseudonyms to avoid persecution. Foreign correspondents are sometimes denied visas and accreditation, while local stringers for the international media work under constant scrutiny from the ruthless National Security Ministry (MNB).

Niyazov ignored Western criticism of Turkmenistan’s dismal press freedom record—the U.S. State Department and several international press groups all expressed dismay—and intensified persecution of journalists working for the Turkmen Service of RFE/RL.

In February, MNB agents arrested 78-year-old Rakhim Esenov, a freelance journalist for RFE/RL, and accused him of smuggling into the country copies of his banned historical novel about the Mogul Empire, which was published in Russia in 2003 after being barred in Turkmenistan for 10 years. While Esenov was in custody, MNB agents demanded that he reveal the names of RFE/RL correspondents working covertly in Turkmenistan, according to a CPJ source in the region. Esenov, who had worked with RFE/RL since 1998 and faced periodic harassment by MNB agents, was charged with instigating social, ethnic, and religious hatred.

In early March, the MNB summoned RFE/RL freelancer Ashyrguly Bayryev for questioning, warned him to sever his ties with the broadcaster, and charged him with slander for unspecified reasons.

Both correspondents were released in mid-March on the condition that they stop reporting for RFE/RL, although the criminal charges were left pending. The journalists stopped working for the broadcaster, and authorities kept them under surveillance, according to a CPJ source in the region.

Another RFE/RL correspondent working for the Turkmen Service was savagely beaten in April. Unidentified men attacked exiled opposition activist and RFE/RL stringer Mukhamed Berdiyev in his apartment in Moscow. The men cut his telephone line and electricity, leaving the injured Berdiyev alone for three days before his son, Shanazar, also an RFE/RL stringer, discovered him barely alive. The Berdiyevs had fled Turkmenistan to Russia in the mid-1990s after years of state persecution. Although the attackers were not identified, the Berdiyevs say the record suggests that Turkmen authorities were behind it.

Dire conditions compelled another RFE/RL stringer to seek asylum. In July, Ashgabat-based correspondent Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev fled the country and resettled in Washington, D.C., with U.S. government assistance after the MNB waged an intensive campaign of intimidation against him and his family. His phone lines and Internet access were cut; neighbors and friends were pressured into severing communications with him; his wife and eldest son were fired from their jobs; and MNB agents maintained ongoing surveillance of him.

Ovezberdiyev, the only RFE/RL stringer who worked under his real name inside Turkmenistan, suffered years of brutal attacks, harassment, and intimidation because of his work. In September 2003, MNB agents detained him for three days without charge; two months later, agents kidnapped and beat him.

In July, the Turkmen Communications Ministry suspended the Russian state broadcaster Radio Mayak, one of the few remaining foreign radio stations broadcasting into the country. Authorities claimed they were forced to take Radio Mayak off the air because of an outdated transmitter, but station staff said the government was trying to eliminate an alternative news source, according to international press reports.

Niyazov continued a wave of repression against dissidents that began after an alleged assassination attempt in November 2002. Hundreds of opposition supporters, including relatives of exiled Niyazov critics, were arrested after the attempt, which many believe the president staged as a pretext to clamp down on dissent. In February, Turkmen authorities published a book, purportedly written by former foreign minister and opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov, in which he allegedly confessed to trying to kill Niyazov. Shikhmuradov was sentenced to 25 years in prison in December 2002 after a closed trial and has not been heard from since.