Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has been called outlandish, eccentric, insane, ruthless, and described as a tyrannical dictator. But the international media's comic portrayals of Niyazov distract attention from many of the very serious problems the country is facing, observers say.
Turkmen citizens have no chance to enjoy ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, or a circus because Niyazov -- also known as Turkmenbashi the Great or the "Father of All Turkmen" -- has banned them, saying they contradict Turkmen national values.
No Health Care, Education
Niyazov has also ordered the dismissal of several thousand health-care workers and replaced them with military conscripts, while also closing down many rural hospitals.
Turkmen children only go to school until the ninth grade ever since the government reduced public education -- making it impossible for them to study at foreign universities.
Only adherents to Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are free to worship in Turkmenistan, as those who follow any other religion or religious sect usually face harsh repression, with some churches having been bulldozed.
And Turkmens are constantly forced to better their knowledge of the nation's history and present by learning phrases from "Rukhnama," Niyazov's book on spirituality and proper behavior, which is compulsory study in schools.
Many Turkmen citizens live in poverty since Niyazov cancelled or cut payments to a large portion of the country's pensioners and cancelled maternity and sick-leave payments for others in February.
If Turkmens criticize the government or work for foreign media outlets, they are likely to be persecuted and can be internally exiled, evicted from their homes, or forcibly put in psychiatric hospitals while their personal property is confiscated.
Nothing Funny About Cult of Personality
This is the dire but realistic picture of Turkmenistan, according to exiled Turkmen dissidents and international human rights groups.
Many of them say the Western media, however, does not give an adequate picture of the country because they are too busy reporting about Niyazov's cult of personality or his strange behavior and comments, such as his criticism of gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and female TV anchors' use of make-up -- or his decision to ban the use of tobacco.
But focusing on such things creates a distorted picture of life in Turkmenistan and takes attention away from the real difficult issues that Turkmens are facing, says Eric Freedman of the journalism school at Michigan State University.
"It's obvious that he does a lot of strange things. Some of them [are] building an ice palace in the desert, renaming the days of the weeks and the months of the year, building the world's largest mosque [or] his putting up giant posters [of himself] all over the country," Freedman says.
"Those kinds of things draw attention to him as a person and they obviously have a public-policy implication," Freedman continues. "But the press doesn't tend to look at those kinds of public-policy issues. It's easier to put attention on things that are a little strange. There are some problems with that, I think, because you as a reader in the West get a distorted picture."
No Interest in Turkmenistan
Farid Tukhbatullin, an exiled human rights activist and head of the Vienna-based nongovernmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, tells RFE/RL that the media portrays Niyazov as a "clown dictator" and his decrees as whims and eccentricity. He says foreign media seem to forget that nearly 5 million people have to live a "tragic life" under Niyazov's rule.
Tukhbatullin believes it is because ordinary people in the West are not interested in getting to know more about Turkmenistan, noting that since he arrived in Europe, "I learned that people know practically nothing -- not only about Turkmenistan -- but also about other former Soviet republics.
"Unfortunately, the foreign press only portrays Turkmenistan as a country with a president who has a screw loose," he adds. "Journalists and perhaps their readers are not interested in having an in-depth knowledge about Turkmenistan. They are probably satisfied with reading about [Niyazov's] odd remarks and behavior over coffee, at their leisure."
Michigan University's Freedman recently conducted research on several Western media outlets' coverage of Turkmenistan, and noted that personality-driven media coverage of other leaders is very rare.
"If the situation were reversed and it were foreign media covering events in the US when Bill Clinton was president, it would be as if most stories about US trade or military included references that Bill Clinton was not faithful to his wife, or had smoked marijuana...or had this 'Slick Willie' kind of image," he says. "And if you put it that way, you realize how ridiculous it would be for the foreign press to do that about the United States. So why wouldn't it be equally ridiculous for the Western press to do that about another country?"
Role of Human Rights Advocates
Freedman says Western media coverage gets more serious when prominent international groups, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the World Health Organization take interest in certain events in the country.
Allison Gill, head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the media should stop making fun of Turkmenbashi and pay more attention to his regime's disastrous human rights record.
"There is absolutely not enough attention to the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," Gill says. "Many people have forgotten about Turkmenistan or consider that the president is somewhat funny in his building of [his own] statues and his creating a cult of personality to himself. But there is nothing funny about what is happening in Turkmenistan. It is an incredibly serious and dire human rights situation that demands the attention of the world community."
Freedman, however, says that the odd and the bizarre about Turkmenbashi are likely to continue dominating media coverage as they attract a greater audience.