Area: 488,100 sq.km.
Languages: Turkmen, Russian
Head of state: President Separmurad Nyazov
An independent media does not exist under the iron rule of "President-for-Life" Separmurad Nyazov. Journalism amounts to blatant propaganda for the dictatorship based on a cult of personality around Nyazov, who calls himself "Turkmenbashi" (the Father of all Turkmen).
"We must show off our achievements to the world and tell people the truth about our country" was the order that went out from President Nyazov to a new satellite TV station launched in October 2004 and directed at foreign countries. The station broadcasts news, films and entertainment in six languages (English, French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Farsi) with the aim of improving the image of a country often accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Turkmens have to make do with government-controlled TV that only broadcasts writings and poems by the president, whose gilded profile appears permanently in a corner of the screen. There is no news, comedy, discussions or Western music and programmes end at 11 p.m.
Foreign stations are always jammed except for the very popular Russian Radio Mayak, which was the only window on the outside world until 10 July, when it could no longer be heard, officially because of technical problems. The station’s news editor, Sergei Kurokhtin, said however it may have been blocked for its reports on discrimination against the country’s Russian minority.
Journalists who dare to work with foreign media are hounded by the government. Radio Free Europe (RFE), which broadcasts pro-democracy material, has been especially targeted. Rakhim Esenov and Ashyrguly Bayryev, who string for it, were arrested by state security agents in Ashgabat on 26 February and 1 March. They were warned to stop working for RFE and then released on 10 and 13 March.
Esenov, who is 78 and seriously ill, was first accused of "smuggling" for importing into the country copies of his 16th-century historical novel published in Russia. Nyazov has banned it in Turkmenistan for 10 years for supposedly containing "historical errors" which he vainly demanded be corrected. Esenov was then accused "inciting social, ethnic and religious hatred," which is punishable by four years in prison under article 177 of the criminal code. The regime gave no reason for Bayryev’s arrest.
Mukhamed Berdiev, correspondent in Moscow for RFE’s Turkmen service, was beaten up at his Moscow home on 30 April by three strangers. He was found three days later with head, eye and rib injuries. He had been preparing a report on Turkmens who recently fled the country. His colleagues said the Turkmenistan secret police may have been behind the attack.
Nyazov denied on 5 January that people had to have visas to leave the country after several local journalists, who wanted to remained anonymous, said they thought they had been put on a blacklist since they had several times been refused without explanation a special passport stamp needed to go abroad