Soltan Achilova is a freelance photojournalist based in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, who covers social issues for independent foreign-based media outlets including Khronika Turkmenistana.
As a journalist in one of the world’s most closed-off societies, where reporters are constantly at risk, Achilova has been attacked, harassed, and put under travel ban in recent years, as CPJ has documented.
Turkmenistan is one of a handful of countries that have not officially reported any cases of COVID-19 as of April 20, according to the World Health Organization.
Achilova corresponded with CPJ via email last week. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What kinds of challenges do journalists face in Turkmenistan?
My work has always been difficult. The situation changed for the worse in 2017-2018, when the MNB [Ministry of National Security] was headed by Dovrangeldy Bayramov. There were many attacks against me, one after another.
They [MNB agents] took away my camera, I was under surveillance 24/7. It felt like a whole army was following me everywhere, and they attacked me whenever they wanted. They would approach me when I took pictures, take my camera, delete all the photos, and return it to me with a warning, threats, and sometimes detentions.
Once, someone broke the windows in the car of my son, who has a disability. The police never investigated the incident. The security service has put pressure on my family, relatives, and friends who kept contacts with me. My family members and I were under a travel ban.
After Bayramov was sacked [in June 2018], the round-the-clock physical surveillance and attacks stopped. But the difficulties remain. A journalist who works for foreign media is still considered an enemy in Turkmenistan.
All my family members know about the risks of my work and oppose me. They constantly ask me to stop working as a journalist. But they also see how faithful I am to my profession, and sometimes show some understanding.
How do you communicate with your colleagues and sources?
I stay in touch with other journalists who work with international media. But the communication is limited to the exchange of opinions only. Everybody has their own problems.
I believe they [the MNB] read our emails, because everything in Turkmenistan is under the control of the security services. We cannot use phone apps, the security service conducts constant surveillance of everything on the internet.
My phones are tapped. I know that because if I arrange a meeting with someone or discuss an important issue, they [the MNB] prevent me from meeting those people.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
My work hasn’t changed since the pandemic started in the world. In Turkmenistan, there have not been any confirmed cases of the coronavirus. I have talked to a lot of people, nobody knows anybody who got sick.
The Turkmen authorities started taking measures when other countries also started taking measures. First, the borders were closed; flights and other transportation with other countries were halted. The disinfection is conducted throughout the entire country. On TV, they explain what to do in terms of hygiene in order to stay safe from infectious diseases.
Has there been misinformation spread about the virus in Turkmenistan?
The reports [in international media] that the word “coronavirus” was banned and security services were detaining people who use the word were not true. I am constantly among the people, and I haven’t seen or heard about it happening.
It was one of many inaccurate reports on Turkmenistan. For example, there were reports that weddings and other large gatherings were banned because of the coronavirus. The news had appeared even before I went to a wedding in mid-March.
There were reports that grocery stores ran out of food because of coronavirus. I [have] photos that there are enough food products in grocery stores in Ashgabat.
Also, there were reports about travelers being banned from traveling within the country unless they had a doctor’s note confirming their health. My relatives visit me from the Mary region without any doctors’ note. People get their temperature checked before boarding the train and other public transport, that’s true.
The authorities have been taking measures in order to stop the virus from spreading in Turkmenistan. It’s difficult for me to speak about the scale and whether the measures have been adequate because I am not an expert. I know that ordinary people are very worried about the virus. But everybody hopes that the authorities have been taking necessary measures to keep us all safe.
How about the news that there are shortages of groceries?
The situation with the deficit of some food products has been going on for three years. It’s only true with products produced locally and sold at a low government-set price. If you can afford to buy flour or vegetable oil at a higher price in other stores, you are welcome.
But the problem is that the prices are constantly growing while the salaries stay low. The unemployment is high, there are many people who don’t have permanent jobs and have random income. Those people form lines to buy inexpensive products in stores. I think some international media outlets are too quick to report without checking the facts with several sources.
Where do you get your information about events in Turkmenistan?
The Turkmen TV stations and newspapers constantly repeat the same news and praise the country’s leadership. You cannot rely on them for truthfulness. As a journalist, I can tell the truth from the lies. I am constantly among people in Ashgabat, I travel to other regions, go to cities and small villages of the country. This gives me an opportunity to collect factual information. That’s how I prepare my reports – based on the words of real people, and what I see with my own eyes.
There are some Russian and international media outlets available in Turkmenistan. I get my news on world affairs from them.
Have police continued harassing journalists amid the pandemic?
Yes, if they see me taking photos, they will take my camera and delete all the photos. They can arrest me. I try to make sure they don’t notice when I photograph. For example, I don’t take pictures in grocery stores where police officers control and regulate the lines of customers. But it’s a constant risk nevertheless.
I go on assignments to report on social issues and anything related to the coronavirus. And I make sure I follow the rules of hygiene and disinfection. I cannot just stay in – I am a journalist.