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Turkmenistan: Attack on Reporting Reaches Urgent Pitch

Turkmenistan’s routine harassment of reporters is taking on harsher and increasingly systematic qualities as authorities seek to clamp down on news of the country's economic crisis from trickling out.

In the latest example of such pressure, RFE/RL reported on December 6 that police in Turkmenistan arrested one of its contributors on suspicion of possessing dipping tobacco.

RFE/RL said Khudayberdy Allashov was detained at his home in the Dashoguz Province on December 3. Armed policemen also beat him and rounded up his mother and wife, the broadcaster said.

Nasvai, a popular and mildly intoxicating form of tobacco, is deemed illegal in Turkmenistan but is consumed widely all the same. RFE/RL quoted Allashov's wife as saying her husband had confessed under duress to possessing 11 kilograms of the tobacco, a charge reportedly punishable by up to seven years in jail.

"We believe these charges are part of a targeted campaign intended to silence our Turkmen Service and intimidate the Turkmen people," RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in a statement.

Allegations of drug possession are one of the Turkmen government’s preferred methods for silencing independent reporters. 

In July 2015, authorities arrested Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who lived in the city of Balkanabad and also worked as a freelance reporter for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, on suspicion of carrying pills allegedly containing narcotic substances. He was later sentenced to three years in jail.

More recently, another RFE/RL correspondent, 67-year old Soltan Achilova, was subejected to physical attacks by unknown assailants, only days after being interrogated by the police in late October.

“Achilova’s ordeal was clearly yet another orchestrated attempt to silence a critic,” Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement at the time.

This kind of persecution is recurrent in Turkmenistan, although its current surge is likely linked to exhaustive reporting being done by RFE/RL on the country’s various signs of economic collapse.

While urgent remedies have tempered shortages of basic commodities in the capital, Ashgabat, the situation is even more grave in the regions, like Dashoguz, where RFE/RL has reported on how shoppers are having to wait for weeks to buy simple items like sugar and cooking oil.

The economic decline is caused by Turkmenistan’s overbearing reliance on its natural gas exports — the value of which has been dropping in line with the fall of global prices for energy commodities. Ashgabat is not only heavily reliant on a single commodity, but it sells almost all of it to one buyer, China, to whom it also owes billions of dollars. 

The intensely secretive nature of the Turkmen government makes it impossible to know how deep a hole the government is in. The government's unwillingness to allow reporters — from inside or without — to relay information offers only a hint of the scale of the problem.

Next year presents a curious predicament for the government in that it is hosting the 2nd edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games — a 10-day event upon which the government has lavished billions of dollars in the hope of casting Ashgabat as a world-class venue for sporting competitions. If the government elects to arbitrarily shut out all (or nearly all) foreign journalists, the competition may prove to become a hugely wasteful and failed public relations exercise. Alternatively, it may let in large numbers of outsiders, with all the dangers that entails.

Turkmenistan: Attack on Reporting Reaches Urgent Pitch

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