Ogulsapar Muradova, the Turkmenistan correspondent of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, died three years ago, on 12 September 2006, after being severely beaten by guards in Ovodan Depe high security prison, to the north of the capital Ashgabat. Today, the Turkmen government is waging an all-out charm offensive while still holding two other journalists, Sapardurdy Khadjiyev and Annakurban Amanklychev, who were arrested and convicted at the same time as Muradova.
Dependent on its income from the export of gas, Turkmenistan is actively trying to diversify its outlets and improve its international image. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov recently met with the leaders of several of its Caspian Sea neighbours, sealed the renewal of ties with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on 13 September and met with Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. President Berdymukhamedov appealed to all potential partners in a speech on 12 September, mentioning a gas pipeline to China that will be opened by the end of the year, a proposed pipeline to carry Turkmen gas to the Indian Ocean and, above all, his country’s determination to join the European Union’s proposed Nabucco pipeline.
“The Turkmenbashi’s successor has been preparing this diplomatic offensive for some time but one should not pin any hopes on his government’s change in tone,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The Turkmen regime is hoping to woo the international community with a new approach, but we urge its potential partners to look at the realities of a country that is ranked 171st out of 173 countries in our press freedom index.
“The dismissal of two important government censorship officials at the start of 2009 raised hopes of liberalisation, but nothing has really changed behind the façade and Turkmenistan continues to be one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists. There is absolutely no criticism of the regime in the media. Internet cafés are allowed but access to opposition websites is blocked, email is monitored and visiting alternative websites can be very dangerous. How can the regime’s declared reform intentions and its calls to local journalists to follow the international media’s example be taken seriously while at the same time it arbitrarily refuses to let journalists and students go abroad?”
Anyone helping foreign journalists risks serious problems. There is so much intimidation that local journalists usually lose no time in declining any invitation to work for foreign news media. The example of Khadjiyev and Amanklychev helps to keep things this way. They were sentenced to six and seven years in prison respectively in August 2006 on a trumped-up charge of “possession of illegal munitions” after helping the French production company Galaxie-Presse prepare a report on Turkmenistan for the French TV station France 2.
According to recent reports, their health has deteriorated and they have ailments affecting the stomach, kidneys, legs and joints. Their access to treatment is very limited and no international organisation, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been allowed to visit them. Their relatives, like Muradova’s relatives and all those who have been in contact with them, are forbidden to leave the country, their phones are tapped and their access to work and higher education is obstructed.
“If President Berdymukhamedov wants to turn his words into actions, he should release Khadjiyev and Amanklychev,” Reporters Without Borders added. “On the sad anniversary of Muradova’s death, we urge the European Union’s members to clearly accept that any commercial and diplomatic opening towards Turkmenistan cannot overlook the situation of human rights and press freedom.”