There is an enormous gulf between the postcard image promoted by the regime and the reality experienced by those who dare to criticize. Officially, the law proclaims freedom of expression and prohibits censorship, but in practice Turkmenistan is a news and information black hole.
The state controls all the media and hounds the few remaining independent journalists, forcing them into hiding, with the result that Turkmenistan is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The authorities even keep a close control on coverage of sports events, preventing reporters from at least three international media, including Agence France-Presse and the Guardian from entering the country to cover these games.
“International spectators should not be fooled by the public relations operation mounted by what is one of the world’s most repressive regimes,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “All the money lavished on the opening ceremony of these games must not eclipse the fact that those who dare to dispute the official line are routinely subjected to threats and torture.”
Persecution of the remaining independent journalists has intensified in the past three years, to the point that it also targets the correspondents of media outlets based abroad, such as Alternative Turkmenistan News, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, Gündogar, Ferghana and Radio Azatlyk (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service).
Soltan Achilova, a journalist who works for Radio Azatlyk, was the target of death threats and an attempted attack in late July. She was previously the victim of three successive physical attacks in November 2016.
Two Radio Azatlyk reporters have been jailed on spurious charges. One of them, Saparmamed Nepeskulyev, who has been held since July 2015, was tried secretly without being defended by a lawyer and was given a three-year jail sentence on a trumped-up drug charge. A specialized UN working group has described his imprisonment as arbitrary.
As well as being a full-blown press freedom predator, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov maintains complete control over the “Turkmenet,” a completely expurgated version of the Internet that is the only form of online access available to the Turkmen population.
Also known as “Arkadag” (Father Protector), Berdymukhamedov is in the process of filling the last gap in his news and information blockade. On the pretext of giving the cities a face-lift, the authorities have in recent years stepped up the removal of the satellite dishes that allowed the population to access international TV news coverage.