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Turkmenistan12 December 2008

Increased harassment of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty correspondents in run-up to parliamentary elections

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s correspondents and regular contributors have been cut off from the rest of the world and closely watched by National Security agents for the past month because of the parliamentary elections taking place on 14 December and an accompanying government desire to exert the utmost control over news and information.

“The harassment of journalists and the perpetuation of the regime’s police-state methods show that the progress Turkmenistan has supposedly made in terms of democratisation is in fact very limited and cosmetic,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“The way the country’s few independent journalists are treated is exasperating,” the press freedom organisation added. “We reiterate our support for them and we urge the authorities to stop using such methods.”

The elections for the 125 seats in the national parliament (“Mejilis”) are being billed by the authorities as a “major step towards democracy.” But so far only members of the ruling party (the only party tolerated in Turkmenistan) or members of movements recognised by the government are being allowed to run.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhmedov has repeatedly portrayed the number of candidates as evidence of the progress that has been made. In fact, there are only 250 candidates for the 125 seats and there has been virtually no information about the procedures for registering as a candidate or what happened to independents who tried to register.

There has also been no debate about any of the key social and economic issues.

Ensuring that no such debate took place is almost certainly one of the reasons why RFE/RL’s correspondents and contributors have been cut off from the world and placed under surveillance. All attempts to call their mobile phones from abroad since 18 November have been blocked, as have their attempts to call abroad. Reporters Without Borders has been told that this is the result of a government decision, not a technical problem.

Those in this situation include RFE/RL’s correspondent in the province of Lebap, Osman Halliyev, who has also been the target of increased surveillance in recent days. Local employees of the intelligence services monitor everything he does. RFE/RL correspondents still manage to communicate with the outside world via the Internet, but access to Internet cafés is also closely watched and is very expensive.

Sazak Durdymuradov, a regular RFE/RL contributor aged 59, has received threats against his life and the lives of his children since filing an application to register as an independent candidate for the elections. Although supported by more than 20 people - many more than the 10 citizen endorsements that the electoral law requires for independent candidates - his application was rejected.

He has meanwhile sent reports saying that no election campaign has taken place in the Bakharden region, where he lives. Arrested on 20 June by intelligence agents, he was forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital and had to sign an undertaking to stop working as a journalist in order to obtain his release at the start of July.

Turkmenistan was ranked 171st out of 173 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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