The poorest of the former Soviet republics and the Central Asian nation with the lowest level of press freedom, Turkmenistan has recently been the focus of considerable international media scrutiny. Yet more exposure has not spelled more freedom for the intimidated corps of state scribes who crank out the propaganda in the only former Soviet republic to retain a leader who came to power before perestroika.

Ruled by the despotic Saparmurad Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi, father of all Turkmen people," land-locked Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world, and has only lacked a secure pipeline to Western markets to unleash its riches. Oil magnates in Russia, the United States, and Iran have been courting Niyazov assiduously in an effort to tap those reserves. The frenzied bidding for various pipeline projects captured the attention of Russian and Western journalists, who reported about such scandals as the squeezing out of an Argentinian company which had originally purchased the rights to the gas deposits at a far lower cost. By the end of the year, Iran succeeded in clinching a deal with Niyazov, and a pipeline was opened between the two countries.

Yet all the visits to Turkmenistan by reporters and officials did not lead to coverage of the country’s social and political ills, and local journalists had no access to details of the large gas deals. Following what he terms "an Asian path," President Niyazov has welcomed joint ventures to fuel government revenue-generating schemes, but has maintained absolute political and social control. Marat Durdiyev, a prominent educator and historian, once a journalist for official local papers as well as Russia’s Pravda, lost his privileged positions on editorial boards when he let comments slip such as, "We have an authoritarian country," and "Only one person does all the thinking."

Few foreign correspondents venture beyond the official dimensions of the oil and gas story to investigate Turkmen society. Small wonder, given the country’s forbidding press climate, in which officials confiscate foreign newspapers from airplanes as soon as they land, secret police tail reporters if they stray from the officially prescribed itinerary, and border guards are known for their thorough searches. Zealous customs agents detained Youshan Anna Kurbanov, a Radio Liberty stringer and one of the few independent journalists in the country, as he tried to board a plane for Prague on October 30. They held him for two weeks without charge and confiscated his audio tapes, which contained mostly folk music.

Every morning the television broadcasts school children singing "for the slightest slander, let my tongue be lost/at the moment of my betrayal to my motherland, to her sacred banner, to my president, let my breath stop." This macabre pledge of allegiance is emblematic of the culture of fear. Unlike other Central Asian countries with similar authoritarian regimes, Turkmenistan has failed to develop even a tiny community of dissidents, human rights activists, or intrepid journalists in its Soviet and immediate post-Soviet periods—people who could challenge the president’s absolute power. Some independent environmental, cultural, and women’s organizations do manage to survive despite the odds, especially outside of the capital of Ashgabad, but their publications do not attempt to challenge or investigate the regime.

According to Greg Myre of the Associated Press, one of the few Westerners to penetrate Turkmenistan, the abrupt switch from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet has left many adults functionally illiterate and unable to read the state-run newspapers. At the state-run national library, no new books have been purchased since independence, and the only periodicals from the outside world are dated magazines and newspapers donated by Western embassies. Foreign aid groups and embassies who offered to connect the library to the Internet and computerize its card catalogue free of charge were rebuffed, since official policy requires Turkmenistan to be self-sufficient. Librarians told Myre that instead of buying books and linking the library to the Internet, the government was building a multi-million dollar presidential palace.