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Berdymukhamedov, who took power when President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov died, is opening up the economy but his human rights record is as disastrous as his predecessor’s. Following Niyazov’s example, he has begun to develop his own personality cult and has shown no signed of liberalizing society, while the international community, which is interested in Turkmenistan’s large natural gas deposits, has kept quiet. The unexpected announcement of a presidential election with opposition participation in February 2012 has aroused more suspicion than hope.
Required to cover the president’s “achievements” and “good works,” radio and TV stations and newspapers are scolded when they fail to show enough fervour and deference towards him, and are subjected to arbitrary appointments and dismissals. With the local media under total state control, independent news and information is provided by only a few media based abroad such as Radio Azatlyk (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service), human rights websites such as Khronika Turkmenistana and Gündogar, and the leading Central Asian news portal Ferghana.
Independent journalists have to operate clandestinely and risk arbitrary detention or even torture. Two journalists and human rights activists, Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadjiyev, have been held since 2006 in appalling conditions in a prison in a desert area near the western city of Turkmenbashi. Ogulsapar Muradova, a woman journalist who was arrested at the same time as them, died in detention in September 2006, almost certainly as a result of mistreatment. Simply passing on information can have dire consequences. Amengelen Chapudakov, 80, was forcibly interned in a psychiatric hospital in March 2010 just for providing information to RFE/RL.
The Internet offers a degree of hope, albeit limited. President Berdymukhamedov has permitted Internet access since 2008, but connections are expensive and broadband still costs an absurd 6,821 dollars a month in a country where the average monthly salary is less than 200 dollars. As a result, less than 1 per cent of the population is connected. There is so much censorship that Turkmen only have access to a sort of national Intranet called Turkmenet. Those who can afford Internet subscriptions or to visit the country’s 15 or so Internet cafés have to cope with slow connections and a great deal of content filtering, and have to register their identity and the websites visited. Facebook and Twitter, and the blog platform LiveJournal, which is very popular in Russian-speaking countries, are not accessible. But even in this oppressive atmosphere, the rapid spread of mobile Internet is beginning to change things beneath the surface.
A series of deadly explosions at an arms depot outside the capital, Ashgabat, on 7 July highlighted the evolution that is under way. The government tried to impose a news blackout but it was broken by the images and accounts provided by ordinary citizens using their mobile phones.The authorities rose to the occasion. Netizens and bloggers were arrested and some are reportedly still being held. Khroniki Turkmenistana, the first website to post images and information about the explosion, was hacked shortly afterwards. The hackers pirated the details of subscribers and posted the identity of contributors and commentators on the site. While the traditional media remain off-limits, the battle for the next generation of online information is only just beginning.
Updated in August 2011
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