The only use President Separmurad Nyazov has for the media is to promote his own glory. The lack of press freedom in the country, one of the most repressive in the world, is unprecedented since the founding of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Freimut Duve, the body’s representative for press freedom, said in a 16 May report. The report described the government’s absolute monopoly of the media, with constant monitoring of news, control of printing plants and dictating of editorial lines to all media by "Turkmenbashi" (Father of all Turkmen), as Nyazov likes to be called. Journalists either have to censor themselves or go into exile.
Offices around the country have the job of seizing any written material considered subversive and Internet access is through the state-owned Turkmentelekom since the banning in 2000 of all privately-owned Internet service providers. The right to be informed and to inform the public does not feature in the country’s laws and defaming or insulting the president is punishable by at least five years in prison.
During the summer of 2002, censorship was imposed on the remaining foreign media that the population had access to - TV stations available by satellite, Russian newspapers received by subscription and Internet news sites.
A wave of arrests followed an attempt to kill Nyazov in November and included Russian-US former journalist Leonid Komarovsky, who was accused of being involved. The state TV station repeatedly showed film of suspects making confessions and asking forgiveness, which Duve noted in his report was similar to the show trials of the Stalin era. The serious obstacles to the flow of information made it very difficult to gather details of the seriousness of press freedom violations.
A journalist imprisoned
Russian-US former journalist Leonid Komarovsky was arrested in Ashgabat on 26November while on a visit to Turkmenistan and accused of involvement in the previous day’s failed assassination of President Nyazov, who said it was an attempted coup d’etat by exiled opposition leaders.
The state TV showed film on 18 December of Komarovsky apologising for his role in preparing the assassination attempt and saying he had got mixed up in it by chance and had acquired satellite phones for the plotters. He said he was ready to make up for his mistake and do everything he could to find those responsible.
The US representative to the OSCE, Douglas Davidson, said on 19 December he was concerned about the use of torture to extract confessions from the suspects and called for an OSCE fact-finding mission to be sent to the country.
Pressure and obstruction
OSCE press freedom representative Freimut Duve wrote to foreign minister Rashid Meredov on 30 April protesting at the seizure of all copies of an issue of the Moscow daily Komosomolskaya Pravda containing an article on Turkmenistan as well as the blocking of access to the paper’s Internet website by the country’s only ISP, Turkmentelekom.
He also criticised the blocking of several sites since the beginning of the year, including those of the Russian paper Vremya Novostei and the German worldwide radio Deutsche Welle, as well as the Turkmen opposition sites Erkin and Gundogar and the news sites Yevraziya and Tsentraziya.
In July, the president set up a foreign news service under his direct authority to supply information to the foreign media and receive material about the country from outside. Headed by Serdar Durdiev, it put out censored versions of news from the British BBC radio, the news agency Reuters and the Russian news agencies ITAR-TASS, RIA-Novosti and Interfax which then appear in the government newspapers Turkmenistan and Neitralniy Turkmenistan.
The newspaper Neitralniy Turkmenistan reported on 19 July that according to Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), the president had asked his ministers and senior media figures not to quote him so much. In fact, what RFE-RL said was that the three groups were working on how to get the president’s pe ideas into the media without mentioning his name.
Nyazov said on 22 July that the state TV station should not try to finance itself through advertising and called for setting up a new body to raise funds for it.
The president ordered on 23 July that programmes on Russian cable TV channels be closely monitored. He was shown on the state-run Altyn Asyr station telling his ministers that the government made no profit from them and had no control over the content. "What if tomorrow they show programmes directed against us?" he asked.
He ordered removal of all satellite receiver dishes from the roofs of Ashgabat, saying they made the city look ugly. The Russian cable TV service cost only $2 a month and was the only media Nyazov did not directly control.
On 29 July, the government banned the import of Russian publications and customs officials began seizing all foreign newspapers coming into the country. No Russian-language newspaper has been published in Turkmenistan since 1992 and since 1997 the government has strongly discouraged people from subscribing to Russian magazines.