Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-proclaimed president for life, steered his nation farther down the path of international isolation, barring foreign publications as well as libraries, and keeping so tight a grip on the news media that vital issues went unreported.
The state owns all domestic news media, and the Niyazov administration controls them closely, appointing editors and censoring content. In power for 15 years, Niyazov calls himself “Turkmenbashi”–the father of all Turkmen–and he uses the thoroughly submissive media to promote his cult of personality. Foreign television news is available to only a small number of urban elites who can afford satellite dishes, while foreign radio broadcasts are available via shortwave only. The lack of independent media forces citizens to rely on rumor for basic information.
State media were silent when a series of murders erupted in Mary, the nation’s second largest city, in July. The absence of reliable information fueled widespread fear among residents and sparked the spread of sensational rumors about the case, according to the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).
Other major stories were ignored by state media, including the spread of AIDS; rampant drug addiction and dealing; and social woes ranging from unemployment to prostitution. Few heard or read about a May massacre in neighboring Uzbekistan in which government troops killed hundreds of civilians during antigovernment protests.
Reporters who contribute to international media and Web sites use pseudonyms to try to avoid persecution from the ruthless National Security Ministry (MNB). Foreign correspondents have dwindled to a handful, primarily from Russian news outlets. Even they are sometimes denied visas and accreditation, or they are harassed in other ways. MNB agents detained Viktor Panov, Ashgabat correspondent for the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, on espionage charges in late February, expelling him two weeks later.
Yet Niyazov’s most audacious moves came in a one-two punch in April. The president banned without explanation the import and distribution of foreign publications, which mainly affected newspapers and magazines published in neighboring countries, RIA Novosti said. Niyazov had already banned subscriptions to foreign publications several years ago. The only remaining Russian-language newspaper in Turkmenistan was the state-controlled Neitralny Turkmenistan, according to RIA Novosti.
Niyazov ordered the closing of libraries that same month, robbing citizens of one of the few avenues for obtaining information from the outside world, including foreign literature, magazines, and news periodicals. “No one goes to libraries to read books anyway,” Niyazov told his cabinet, according to IWPR. The president was also quoted as saying that the books Turkmen needed were already in their homes, schools, and workplaces. The move followed a series of presidential decrees in recent years that have banned opera, ballet, the circus, and movie theaters.
Bookstores are not an alternative for outside information. Their shelves are filled with Niyazov’s own writings, notably Rukhnama (Book of the Soul), his 400-page guide for living, according to IWPR. Rukhnama is compulsory reading in all schools, public employees are tested on its contents, and houses of worship are directed to display it next to the Koran and the Bible. Critics say the book is full of historical errors. Rukhnama denies any influence from other cultures on Turkmenistan’s development; it claims that Turkmen invented writing.
Niyazov moved to isolate his country even from the former Soviet republics that constitute the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an economic alliance. He announced in August that Turkmenistan would reduce its membership in the CIS from full to associate status. State television lauded the move as “the latest glorious victory of independent, neutral Turkmenistan,” the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.