For the first time, netizens have managed to breach the censorship wall of one of the world’s most closed countries. In response, the regime has targeted them for harsh crackdowns, ready to do whatever it takes to retain its absolute power, even to the point of viewing people with satellite dishes and mobile phones as potential enemies.
Hopes that the country would open up with the coming to power of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in 2007 have come to nothing.
Turkmenistan, one of the countries most hostile to freedom of expression, is still technologically and financially blocking the growth of the Internet and imposing drastic censorship, resulting in a “Turkmenet” purged of any political or social topic (see the Turkmenistan chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report). In fact, only 2.2% of Turkmen are connected. Yet for those not using a software circumvention tool, social networks – particularly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, considered to be troublemakers – are blocked. This censorship was extended to Gmail in February 2012.
Abadan: Start of the Information War 2.0
A deadly explosion at an arms depot in the Ashgabat suburb of Abadan in July 2011 marked the start of the first online information war in Turkmenistan. For the first time, netizens managed to breach the wall of silence imposed by the regime by posting on the Internet amateur videos taken with their mobile phones. Most of the videos were sent by emails to contacts abroad who could publish them online easilier.
After initially covering up this incident, the authorities were eventually obliged to acknowledge it, though they tried to minimize it. But they quickly reacted by launching a wave of seizures, interrogations and incarcerations, though how many is still unknown.
It is thought that dozens of netizens were arrested, at least temporarily. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, one policeman allegedly stated that anyone possessing a mobile phone or Internet account with the state-owned operator Altyn Asyr was being monitored. Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondent, and one of the first to cover this incident, was sentenced to five years in prison, then pardoned in response to international pressure. The independent news website Khronika Turkmenistana, hosted abroad, experienced several cyberattacks. Hackers pirated the subscribers’ data, and posted the identity of contributors and commentators in lieu of the site.
Mobile phones and satellite dishes under close surveillance
Connection speed has declined since Russian telecom company MTS was ousted from Turkmenistan. The “Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media” briefing paper written by several NGOs claims that the regime, dissatisfied with national operator Altyn Asyr, which had become a monopoly once its only competitor was eliminated, signed a contract with Huawei Technologies (China) and the Finnish-German company Nokia Siemens Networks to increase network capacity and offer new services. It remains to be seen what these companies can achieve in a country whose government routinely monitors netizens.
According to the state TV network, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who in 2008 had already declared war on satellite dishes, announced in May 2011 that their number would be limited, complaining that they “spoil the appearance of buildings.” The main reason for this initiative was to prevent the population from escaping the state-controlled media’s relentless propaganda by tuning into Russian, Turkish and Arabic satellite television channels.
Technological ambitions up against the censorship wall
During a speech made in January 2012 just before hisprogrammed “reelection,” Turkmenistan’s President apparently stated his desire to form “a new generation of specialists who have mastered all the modern communications and multi-media technologies” in a future “highly developed information society” who will advance civilization “by the unrestrained flight of human thought.” The President apparently grasped the country’s need to modernize, but refuses to question the censorship system that keeps him in power, even as he strives to bolster his own personality cult. The Eurasianet website sums up the situation as: “Berdymukhamedov’s Failed Internetization.“