Turkmenistan: Citizen Journalism Emerges in a Silenced Country
Turkmenistan has the world’s third most suppressed media, followed only by North Korea and Eritrea. However, the coverage of a deadly explosion in July, 2011 marked the unprecedented emergence of citizen journalism in one of the world’s most isolated countries.
In an attempt to understand the daily challenges citizen and independent journalists face while working on and from this muted country, Sampsonia Way interviewed three journalists by email: Oguljamal Yazliyeva, Director of Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Daniel Kislov, Chief Editor of Fergana Information Agency; and Anna Soltan, Turkmenistan Managing Editor at Neweurasia.
The interviewees explained that the authoritarian practices of Turkmenistan’s government carefully manipulate and regulate the flow of information within and without the country’s borders. Such practices keep its society isolated, and after almost 70 years under Soviet control, then 20 years under Saparmurat Niyazov’s dictatorship, the people fear punishment of free speech.
What are the risks for journalists and bloggers in Turkmenistan? What precautions do they need to take?
Yazliyeva: Turkmenistan is one of the most risky places for journalists and bloggers in the world. Independent journalists and bloggers are under constant surveillance, they are summoned to the national security agencies for questioning, and they face imprisonment or confinement in psychiatric clinics for their journalistic work. They and their family members are blacklisted, meaning they are not allowed to travel abroad, and their family members may be easily dismissed from their positions or expelled from schools. There was also a case of torture in prison; Ogulsapar Muradova, a contributor for the RFE/RL Turkmen Service was imprisoned in 2006 and died in Turkmen custody.
You cannot predict what will happen to you for reporting or taking a picture. The authorities may fabricate any accusation and open a criminal case against you. They may interfere into your private life and use your family problems against you. Journalists in Turkmenistan need to be very cautious. In case of any trouble, the journalist should know who to contact and report to about the security problem. Organized teamwork is helpful in such situations. It is also important to change the mobile account frequently and exercise caution while talking over the phone. Some journalists use nicknames.
How is the media controlled? How is the Internet regulated? Is access restricted?
Kislov: There are no independent media in the country. All TV-stations and papers are under the authorities’ control. Internet access is a luxury for few – rich businessmen and bureaucrats. Prices are high, and common folk must to go to the Internet café and show their passports to get Web access. However, the speed of connection is very slow, and often people cannot use Skype and other programs.
Soltan: The police can obtain the list that includes the names of people with Internet access. There are not many people who have Internet access from home. There is filtering, and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and several other sites are blocked. The more the Internet develops, the more the control over online communication and Web content increases. For example, two 3rd semester students were evicted from the Transportation Institute recently because of their critical remarks in one of the Turkmen language chat forums. The authorities use IP tracking to locate Turkmen citizens abroad; there are rumors that the authorities are collecting information from Facebook to spy on their citizens.
In addition to your own work, what avenues are there for disseminating information within Turkmenistan? How does the information get out of the country?
Yaliyeva: Despite existing Internet restriction the number of Turkmen Internet users is increasing. Social networking is a new tool of disseminating information, but it is more popular among Turkmen citizens studying or working abroad. It is one of the ways of getting information from Turkmenistan. Information is sent through emails as well. Unfortunately, SMS service is very limited in the country. There is no SMS communication with foreign countries. Also, word of mouth is considered one of the means of getting information.
How does the situation for journalists and citizen journalists in Turkmenistan compare to other Central Asian countries like Iran and Afghanistan that also have strict state-controlled media?
Kislov: The situation in Turkmenistan is going from bad to worse. It’s the worst in the region.
Soltan: Out of these three countries Turkmenistan has the worst media environment and the journalist’s role is the most difficult. In Afghanistan journalists are able to criticize the government’s policies, and in Iran it is possible for journalists to discuss social issues without deviating from the official line. In Iran there are also many young bloggers. There is a reformist group within the Iranian government that enjoys widespread popular support. In Afghanistan there are reporters who work openly for foreign media organizations such as RFE/RL and BBC. None of this is possible in Turkmenistan. Also, various forms of statistics that are available in Iran and Afghanistan are not available in Turkmenistan, where they’re treated as a state secret.
Earlier this year, recently imprisoned Turkmen journalist Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev compared the revolutions in the Arab world to the situation of Turkmenistan. [Yazkuliyev was released yesterday, after this interview was conducted] What could Yazkuliyev have meant by this comparison?
Soltan: As I understand it, Yazkuliyev had drawn comparisons by saying or meaning that the conditions that led to a revolution in these countries – unemployment, a small, rich elite and a large poor population, a neglected youth deprived of good education and a future, the inflation and lack of reforms—were similar to the conditions in Turkmenistan.
He also suggested that dictatorships are giving way to democracy and dictators would not get very far in oppressing their citizens. I think Yazkuliyev, with his probing questions about the decisions of the Turkmen government, was trying to speak the mind of the Turkmen people when the people themselves cannot speak.
What are the effects of the government’s sustained cultural isolation and media control on Turkmen society?
Soltan: People are less aware about what is happening around them. Because information is power, by lacking information the people can be manipulated easily, which affects the people’s ability to think, predict, and make decisions for themselves. On top of it, the country’s isolation is breeding intolerance, nationalism, and religious extremism.
People are also afraid to talk to reporters. There is still some confusion about journalism as an image of a reporter who cooperates with a foreign news station being a “spy,” an “enemy from within,” or a “traitor to the state,” which is being fostered by official propaganda and by the isolation of the country. This isolates the journalist within the society, meaning less and less good reports in the country. Otherwise, journalists flee the country because they are not able to carry out their profession in a proper manner.
On July 7, an arms depot exploded at Abadan near the capital of Ashgabat. The government first shut down the media and then downplayed the event that was reported by journalists, citizens, and bloggers as a far worse disaster that killed possibly 200 people and destroyed many buildings. What do you think the disaster of Abadan proved to the Turkmen government? The Turkmen people? The global community?
Kislov: Primarily, an unwillingness of the authorities to be responsible to the people.
Yazliyeva: The disaster of Abadan proved to the Turkmen government that it is impossible to hide information in the era of the Internet; the Turkmen people realized that information needed to be spread out for the sake of people in need; the global community saw the real face of the Turkmen government, which tried to prevent the spreading of information and persecuted the citizen journalists.
Soltan: In this situation of utmost desperation and chaos the people felt they had to inform family members, relatives, close friends, and others about what they had seen with their own eyes. They also called on each other to help at the site, which many did. I think they acted by their instincts rather than having the purpose of acting as reporters. So it was very natural of them to upload video footage and photos of the tragedy to share with others. After all, the young generation is growing up with mobile phones and the Internet. You have to imagine the scope of the catastrophe with people writing on chat forums about the horrible scenarios they have gone through, seeing dead bodies, while the government insisted that there were no deaths. After word came out that dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of people had died, and many more were injured, the authorities were prepared to admit that 15 people had died.