Attacks on the Press in 2008: Turkmenistan

In the second year of his presidency, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov relaxed some cultural restrictions but took no significant steps to improve press conditions. The strange and repressive legacy of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006, continued to dominate this gas-rich Central Asian nation. Despite Berdymukhammedov’s promises to open his long-isolated country to the world, access to critical news Web sites was blocked by the dominant, state-owned Internet service provider, and authorities dismantled residential satellite dishes in the capital, Ashgabat, on presidential orders. The government waged an aggressive campaign of harassment against journalists working for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, even as it continued to stonewall questions about the 2006 death of an RFE/RL correspondent in state custody.

Berdymukhammedov reversed some of Niyazov’s more bizarre decrees. He lifted a seven-year-old ban on opera and the circus in January, and he ordered the removal of Niyazov’s golden statue from Ashgabat’s center a few months later, according to international news reports. Berdymukhammedov brought back the common names for days of the week and months of the year, which Niyazov had renamed after himself and his family members. In September, the Halk Maslakhaty, or People’s Council, adopted a new constitution that disbanded the 2,500-member Turkmen parliament and redistributed power between the president and a newly created 125-member parliament. Article 28 of the new constitution guarantees freedom of thought and free access to information–unless the information is labeled confidential and protected by the state.

The government owns all domestic media, appoints all editors, and approves all content, noted Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the independent Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR). Nonetheless, in a January address, the president heavily criticized Turkmen media for poor content quality, the state news Web site Turkmenistan reported. Berdymukhammedov said print and broadcast media were unable to depict the “true life and being of Turkmen people,” and he urged journalists to report on “stability, which prevails in all spheres of life, including state governance.”

The day after his critique, Berdymukhammedov fired Minister of Culture and Broadcasting Kakageldy Chariyardurdiyev, the second culture minister to be dismissed in a year. In October, the president also sacked Annamukhammed Akmedov, head of the state TV channel Turkmenistan, for poor performance, according to local press reports. The same month, Berdymukhammedov established a state commission to assess and approve all domestic art and literature. Critics immediately noted that the commission’s main duties would entail censorship.

At various times during the year, authorities in Ashgabat removed satellite dishes from some residential blocks, thus cutting citizens’ link to international media and the outside world. The president had decreed that the mushrooming number of dishes “aesthetically damaged” the image of the capital, RFE/RL reported. Authorities began connecting some residential buildings in Ashgabat to a state-run cable television network that offered a limited number of channels, according to TIHR.

The president’s initial promises to connect Turkmen people to the Internet went largely unfulfilled as authorities continued to censor the Web. TurkmenTeleCom, the state Internet service provider, routinely blocked access to dissident and opposition Web sites, while it monitored e-mail accounts registered with Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail, TIHR said in a September report. Russian telecommunications company MTS, which entered the Turkmen market in 2005, started offering Web access from mobile phones in June, according to the state-owned information Web site Turkmenistan: The Golden Age. But service agreements required customers to avoid Web sites critical of the Turkmen government, TIHR said in its report, and relatively high-priced subscription rates dissuaded many customers.

The government targeted RFE/RL journalists throughout the year. In June, agents with the National Security Ministry (MNB) seized RFE/RL contributor Sazak Durdymuradov from his home in the western city of Bakharden and forced him into psychiatric detention, the broadcaster reported. A history teacher at a local school, Durdymuradov commented on social and political developments in Turkmenistan, even praising the new leadership at times for education reforms. Durdymuradov had felt comfortable using his real name on the air–most RFE/RL correspondents do not because of safety concerns–in the belief that real reforms were taking place, RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguldzhamal Yazliyeva told CPJ. School officials fired Durdymuradov the same day as his arrest, leaving his family without a source of income. Authorities kept Durdymuradov in a psychiatric hospital in the eastern Lebap region for two weeks, freeing him only after pressure from international rights groups, including CPJ. Upon his release, a security officer warned Durdymuradov to “go and tell the truth” about his treatment in detention, and not to “slander” the government in his broadcasts, RFE/RL reported. School officials reinstated Durdymuradov in August, and the journalist resumed his radio work as well, Yazliyeva told CPJ.

Two other RFE/RL contributors–Osman Halliyev and Gurbansultan Achilova–reported harassment from security services. In June, Halliyev told RFE/RL that MNB agents had placed his home under around-the-clock surveillance and that agents followed him wherever he went. The same month, the Turkmen State Institute of World Languages in Ashgabat expelled Halliyev’s son in reprisal for the journalist’s reporting, the broadcaster said. MNB agents interrogated Achilova three times, warned her not to report without government accreditation, and forced her to sign a document saying she would stop working. Yazliyeva said that RFE/RL had applied for accreditation for its reporters, but that the Foreign Ministry had ignored its application.

Authorities also ignored continuing requests for an independent investigation into the September 2006 death in an Ashgabat prison of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. Before dying under mysterious circumstances, the 58-year-old reporter had spent three months in state custody on spurious charges of possessing ammunition. Although Muradova’s body showed severe head and neck bruises, authorities claimed she had died of natural causes and refused to release the results of an autopsy.

The fate of human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiyev–arrested together with Muradova on specious arms charges in 2006–remained unknown. Amanklychev and Khadzhiyev, who were affiliated with the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, helped French and British journalists film a documentary about social and political conditions in Turkmenistan, according to international press reports.

Conquering Television to Control the Narrative


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