New York, March 9, 2006—Two correspondents for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are being held incommunicado after being arrested on Tuesday, and the U.S. government-funded broadcaster said today it has lost contact with its entire network of correspondents in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply alarmed by the developments and called on the Turkmen government to disclose details of the arrests, allow restoration of contact with RFE/RL journalists, and halt its intimidation of the broadcaster’s reporters.
Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, who reported from the region of Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan, were arrested by local police and taken to an unknown location, according to RFE/RL and other published reports. Charges against the two journalists have not been disclosed, and authorities refused to speak to the families of the two men, the radio service reported. Khommadov and Ovezov reported on social, economic, and cultural issues.
RFE/RL said in a statement that its Turkmen service has been unable to contact its other correspondents for 10 days. The Turkmen service relies on about a half dozen correspondents, who file on an irregular basis from inside the closed country. RFE/RL Acting President Jeff Trimble issued a public appeal today, saying its correspondents “are guilty of nothing more than trying to do their jobs as journalists and report the news.”
One of those correspondents, Shamurad Akoyliyev, was summoned to the Balkansk branch of the Ministry of National Security (MNB) in late February, when security officers warned him of the “unacceptability” of his affiliation with RFE/RL, the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights told CPJ. The exact date of the interrogation was not immediately clear, but authorities later cut off Akoyliyev’s telephone and the MNB began 24-hour surveillance, the human rights group said. Relatives were pressured to halt communication with Akoyliyev, the group said.
RFE/RL lost contact with Akoyliyev on February 28. Akoyliyev reported from the western Balkansk region, where he primarily covered sports.
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.
“We’re alarmed by Turkmen authorities’ actions against our colleagues Meret Khommadov and Dzhumadurdy Ovezov, and we are very concerned that RFE/RL cannot contact its correspondents,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on authorities to disclose the whereabouts and all other details concerning Ovezov and Khommadov and to release the journalists immediately. We also call on government officials to halt their campaign of intimidation against RFE/RL journalists and allow them to do their jobs.”