Reporters Without Borders is shocked by the secrecy surrounding Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Italy. The leader of one of the world’s most repressive countries, President Berdymukhamedov arrived yesterday in Rome with a delegation of businessmen and is to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi today.
When contacted by Reporters Without Borders last week, the Italian foreign ministry denied that the Turkmen president was going to visit Italy. News agencies have not been told of the visit. On Monday evening, the prime minister’s offices finally acknowledged that he was coming, but in response to a personal invitation from Berlusconi, not on a state visit. “There is no such thing as a private invitation from one government leader to another,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Either the Turkmen regime (which was ranked 173rd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index) is the kind of government one can be associated with, in which case its president’s visit is a normal event that the public should know about. Or it is not the kind of government one can be associated with, in which case there should at the very least have been a serious debate about the desirability of receiving President Berdymukhamedov.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “Prime Minister Berlusconi must publicly explain his behaviour and must provide details of what they discuss.”
The European Union recently embarked on a rapprochement with Turkmenistan, which it sees as one of the main potential suppliers for its proposed Nabucco gas pipeline. Russia is trying to renegotiate terms for the purchase of Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas, but the prospects of Turkmenistan working with the EU were reinforced at this year’s international “Turkmenistan Oil and Gas” forum held from 16 to 19 November in Ashgabat. The Italian company ENI is one of the international companies competing for gas contracts.
Dependent on its income from the export of gas, Turkmenistan is actively trying to diversify its outlets and improve its international image. After trying to lure investors in June by unveiling plans for a “Turkmen Las Vegas” to be built at great cost on the Caspian Sea, he recently announced an “electronic revolution” that is supposed to make the government more efficient. But one should not pin any hopes on this change in tone.
"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,” Reporters Without Borders said.
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?
Andrei Zatoka, a scientist and environmental activist with Turkmen and Russian dual nationality, was arrested on clearly trumped-up charges on 20 October and was sentenced to five years in prison nine days later. Thanks to pressure from Moscow, which for once was in accord with the rest of the international community, Zatoka was finally released and deported to Russia.
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 Sapardurdy Khadjiyev and Annakurban 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 the relatives of Ogulsapar Muradova (the Turkmenistan correspondent of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, who died in detention in 2006 after being severely beaten by guards) 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.
“The Italian government and the other members of the European Union must clearly accept that any commercial and diplomatic opening towards Turkmenistan cannot overlook the situation of human rights and press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders concluded.
Read the press release in Italian : "Mr Berlusconi, è o non è frequentabile il regime turkmeno?"
You may also read Global Witness’s recent report : "All that gas? The EU and Turkmenistan"