Turkmen Sackings Hint At Possible Relaxation Of Media Restrictions
Nearly every morning, a postman delivers fresh newspapers to Arslan's house in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. It has been like this for years -- like it or not.
This is because, as a public-sector employee, Arslan is required to subscribe to state publications, with the fees deducted from his wages.
Arslan, however, barely ever reads the newspapers.
"They all are identical," says the 34-year-old teacher. "They all write about the president. Hardly anything in our newspapers is worth reading."
Indeed, most newspapers and magazines in Turkmenistan dedicate their front pages or covers to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's meetings, speeches, and trips. The reports are illustrated with colorful photographs featuring the president.
Even articles in medical workers' publications or women's magazines are full of praise and compliments for Berdymukhamedov. Criticism of the president and his policies is virtually unheard of.
Change For The Better?
However, Berdymukhammedov's recent dismissal of two heavyweight media executives widely believed to be behind the implementation of state-imposed censorship has many Turkmen holding out hope that the media environment in the isolated country is about to change for the better.
Begli Aliev, head of the Turkmenistan's state-run Altyn Asyr television channel, was reportedly responsible for silencing liberal-minded journalists and publications. The channel announced that he was sacked for "grave shortcomings in work and failing to perform duties entrusted to him."
Annamyrat Poladow, the editor in chief of the government newspaper "Turkmenistan," was known as one of the key orchestrators of former President Saparmurat Niyazov's notorious personality cult. He was sacked for "health reasons."
The dismissals have sparked discussion that the government's tight control over the media might ease.
Berdymukhammedov has given some positive signals of this recently, including calling on Turkmen journalists to "learn from foreign media examples."
"Members of the press in our country have big responsibilities," he said a few months ago. "Senior television officials, editors of main newspapers and magazines have been on an official visit to South Korea to become acquainted with how mass media operates in foreign countries. I ask cabinet Minister Maysa Yazmuhammedowa to explain and show all the valuable experiences you have obtained there in your newspapers and television and radio programs."
While Niyazov closed journalism departments at Turkmen State University, saying there was no need to train journalists for the job, Berdymukhammedov has opened a new department of journalism at Ashgabat's International Relations University.
His decision to allow Internet cafes to open has been welcomed by Turkmen, especially the young, and the Internet has become increasingly popular among urbanites.
But the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent media watchdog, has included Turkmenistan in its list of "The 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger." The CPJ said the state Internet service provider, Turkmentelecom, routinely blocks access to opposition sites and independent news websites and monitors e-mail accounts.
State-Owned And Strictly Controlled
Turkmenistan still has a long way to travel on the road to free media. Reforms are slow and changes are superficial.
Independent media is almost nonexistent in the country. With the notable exception of a Turkish-owned newspaper, "Zaman Turkmenistan," all publications in the country are state-owned and their contents are strictly controlled by the government.
It is not uncommon for independent journalists who work for foreign media to have their phone lines disconnected. Police often summon reporters and their relatives for questioning. Two RFE/RL correspondents working in Turkmenistan were subjected to threats and intimidation by local intelligence officers earlier this year. Another RFE/RL contributor in Turkmenistan was detained and confined to a remote psychiatric clinic last summer.
No criticism of the president or the authorities is allowed. Censorship and self-censorship are routine. Even "Zaman Turkmenistan" stays clear of commenting on Turkmen politics or the country's poor human-rights situation.
Journalists who overstep their boundaries by covering political issues can face severe reprisals. At least two people who worked as fixers for foreign media -- Annakurban Amangylyjov and Sapardurdi Hajiyev -- are currently in prison, officially for illegally collaborating with the French Embassy.
Call For Respect
Halmurat Soyun, a former member of the Turkmen parliament, has called on Berdymukhammedov's government to free the jailed reporters and to respect the freedom of press and journalists' rights.
"We urge President Berdymukhammedov and his government to accurately fulfill their obligations and promises, and demand that they act within the frames of our constitution," Soyun said. "Of course, the government must truly understand what is going on in the country."
Turkmenistan is the only country in the region where government officials do not hold press conferences. Only handpicked correspondents from state television and news agencies are invited to cover presidential meetings with foreign dignitaries and cabinet ministers.
Some small improvements have recently been noted in local newspapers, however. For instance, journalists have begun to write about social problems in the country, such as drug addiction and drug trafficking. Hardly a sign of bravery for journalists elsewhere in the world, but in Turkmenistan covering such topics takes enormous courage.
During Niyazov's time, all forms of criticism were taboo and reporters could end up behind bars for merely mentioning such issues.
As for ordinary Turkmen like Arslan, changes in media content are not yet evident. Arslan insists Turkmen publications still do not offer any "proper news or interesting material."
He is convinced that Turkmen newspapers would have gone bankrupt long ago if worker like him weren't obligated to subscribe.
Editor's Report: RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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