CPJ condemns restrictions on journalists covering Sunday’s presidential vote in Turkmenistan

New York, February 9, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns restrictions on the foreign and domestic journalists covering the Turkmen presidential election on February 11.

While voters will cast their ballots for a president for the first time since 1992 on Sunday, CPJ said the outcome is all but assured. The six presidential contenders, including acting Head of State Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, are from the only permitted political party. No opposition candidates will be allowed to run, and no international observers will be allowed to monitor the vote.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the only international broadcaster that maintains an informal network of correspondents in Turkmenistan, said in a press release today that it will “keep watch on the polling in all key areas of … [Turkmenistan], including the capital Ashgabat, the … eastern city of Mary and Turkmenabad in the north.”

Correspondents and contributors to the Turkmen Service of RFE/RL, along with their families, have endured harassment over the years, solely for their connection to the radio. Harassment has ranged from threats and surveillance of their daily activities, to torture, imprisonment, even murder.

Foreign correspondents have dwindled to only a handful in Turkmenistan, primarily from Russian news outlets, but they keep a low profile because of harassment or denied visas and accreditation. In 2004, the Turkmen Communications Ministry suspended the last foreign radio station broadcasting from Turkmenistan, the Russian Radio Mayak, allegedly because of an outdated transmitter; the next year, security agents expelled one of the few remaining international correspondents, Viktor Panov of the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, on fabricated charges of espionage.

“They call it an election but the will of the people cannot be discerned when the press is systematically impeded from doing its work,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

In the immediate aftermath of Saparmurat Niyazov’s death by heart failure at age 66 on December 21, his named successor, Berdymuhammedov, pledged to continue on the path of the late president. While Berdymuhammedov said publicly that all presidential candidates should receive equal media time for campaigning, he has been the only candidate in the media.

Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most censored societies, according to CPJ research which documented the September death of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova in an Ashgabat prison. Fifty-eight-year-old Muradova was arrested and held incommunicado for two months before being sentenced to six years in jail on what CPJ found were bogus charges of possessing ammunition in a secret trial without counsel that lasted all but a few minutes. Three weeks later, her family received her dead body. There was no autopsy, no explanation of the cause and time of death, and authorities refused international calls for an independent investigation into her death.