Freedom of the Press
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government maintained near-total control over the media in 2011, despite nominal constitutional protections for press freedom and freedom of expression. While the state built an elaborate and costly new television tower and broadcasting center and added a new sports channel, none of this led to increased media freedom for the general population. The president made frequent pledges to modernize broadcast and print media and increase internet availability, yet these pledges remained unfulfilled. Although libel is a criminal offense, the law is rarely invoked given the intensity of official media control and self-censorship, and the extreme scarcity of independent and critical reporting.
Both local journalists and those in exile face a range of extralegal threats and harassment. The government cracked down on coverage of a July 2011 explosion at an arms depot in the town of Abadan. Independent reporters and citizen journalists rushed to the scene, getting past military roadblocks to take video footage and photographs that they then uploaded to YouTube as well as local and Russian social-networking sites. Russian and other foreign media rebroadcast pictures and interviews from local reporters who had evaded state censors. The authorities responded by confiscating cameras, searching homes, seizing computers, and detaining citizens suspected of using social media to report the disaster. Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a stringer for Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was warned about his “unlawful defamatory activity” after blogging about the tragedy. Subsequently, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of inciting a relative’s suicide. He received amnesty in October, and credited an international outcry for his release.
In 2011, Reporters Without Borders reported that the health of two imprisoned journalists, Sapardurdy Khadjiyev and Annakurban Amanklychev, remained in jeopardy. After protests from U.S. and European lawmakers, their relatives were finally permitted to visit them. The two men had been arrested in 2006 with their colleague, Ogulsapar Muradova, after helping France 2, a French television station, with a report on Turkmenistan; Muradova died several months later as a result of severe beatings in prison.
Foreign correspondents were very rarely given permission to report in Turkmenistan, and were kept under surveillance and restricted in their meetings. The authorities also harassed local correspondents working for RFE/RL during 2011. Other reporters for foreign outlets continued to encounter insurmountable obstacles to accreditation, forcing them to work unofficially if at all.
The government retained an absolute monopoly on the national media in 2011, directly controlling not only all domestic outlets, but also the printing presses, broadcasting facilities, and other media infrastructure. Berdymukhamedov repeatedly warned, reprimanded, or fired broadcast executives, usually on the grounds that they had failed to portray his propagandistic “New Revival” campaigns with sufficient enthusiasm, or due to technical problems during coverage of state events. While prior censorship is extensive in broadcast media, some television shows still drew presidential harangues for inappropriate broadcasts, although the details were not explained in the state media. One privately published magazine, Rysgal, opened with great presidential fanfare in 2010; however, it became clear in 2011 that the state-controlled Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in fact published the magazine, and that it did not stray from the presidential line. The authorities maintained a ban on almost all foreign newspapers and periodical subscriptions—notably including Russian newspapers—and confiscated publications and computer discs from travelers. Despite an absence of independent domestic media, many citizens had some access to international media through satellite dishes, and obtained some news of the Abadan explosion and the Arab Spring demonstrations from Russian television. As in 2002 and 2007, the authorities ordered the removal of satellite dishes in 2011, and citizens generally failed to comply. Nevertheless, access remains limited due to cost barriers. Turkmenistan announced plans to launch its own satellite into space to control broadcasting more fully, but there was little progress on this by year’s end.
Continued government restrictions and high costs kept the internet penetration rate extremely low in 2011, with only 5 percent of the population using the medium. The government controlled the dominant internet service provider, Turkmen Telecom, and restricted access to critical sites including regional news sources based outside Turkmenistan, opposition websites run by Turkmens living abroad, the video-sharing site YouTube, and foreign outlets like the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Two websites, Chronicles of Turkmenistan (Chrono-tm.org) and Gundogar.org, an exile news site, were subject to repeated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks in 2011, particularly after the Abadan explosion and leading up to the presidential election scheduled for February 2012. Farid Tukhbatullin, the editor of the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, received several death threats in 2010, and in 2011 his e-mail was hacked and published. At the end of 2010, the government refused to extend a contract with MobileTeleSystems (MTS), a Russian mobile provider, depriving 2.4 million people—or 80 percent of the country’s users—of mobile service. Some citizens used the sole state provider, Altyn Asyr, but it had previously served only 300,000 people, so new customers were subjected to long waits and poor service. The government was in talks with other foreign mobile companies at the end of 2011, but had not restored service to its previous level.