Authorities release two RFE/RL journalists

New York, March 20, 2006—Authorities have released two journalists working for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) after arresting them on spurious charges of hooliganism, according to international press reports. RFE/RL officials in Prague issued a statement saying that the two journalists—Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov—were freed on Thursday only after signing documents agreeing not to work for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster.

“Turkmen authorities made it a condition of their release that Ovezov and Khommadov sign a statement that they will no longer work for RFE/RL,” said the broadcaster’s acting president, Jeff Trimble. “This shows clearly the real reason for their arrest: to stop their journalistic activities.”

The broadcaster has also been unable to restore communication with the rest of its Turkmen correspondents. RFE/RL, which lost contact with the reporters in late February, said today it was still seeking information on their status. The Turkmen service has relied on about a half dozen correspondents, who file on an irregular basis from inside the closed country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply alarmed by the situation and called on the Turkmen government to allow restoration of contact with RFE/RL journalists and halt its intimidation of the broadcaster’s reporters. “We condemn the persecution of our colleagues Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov and we’re very concerned that RFE/RL cannot contact its correspondents,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Turkmen authorities to halt their campaign of harassment and allow RFE/RL journalists to work freely.”

Khommadov and Ovezov were arrested by local police in the southeastern Mary region on March 7 and held incommunicado at an unknown location. Charges against the two journalists were not disclosed, and authorities refused to speak to the families of the two men, the radio service reported. They reported on social, economic, and cultural issues.

Last Wednesday, Turkmen authorities said the correspondents had been sentenced to 15 days of community service for allegedly disrupting a town hall meeting in Mary, RFE/RL reported.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed societies, and RFE/RL is considered the only independent source of news and information in the country. Authorities routinely persecute journalists affiliated with the radio service, private citizens who have given interviews to RFE/RL, and relatives and friends of RFE/RL journalists, according to CPJ research. Most RFE/RL correspondents use pseudonyms to avoid official harassment, which includes threats, detentions, interrogations, surveillance, torture, and imprisonment.