One of the world’s most repressive states promises all sorts of freedom.
Turkmenistan has passed its first media law since it separated from the Soviet Union in 1991, and on paper it looks great, with commitments to freedom of expression and an end to censorship.
In this tightly controlled Central Asian state, though, there is really very little prospect of change. The government-run media will carry on being as heavily censored as they have been for the last two decades.
The new legislation came into force on January 4, the day after it was signed by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, and it grants Turkmenistan’s citizens “the right to use all forms of media to express their opinions and beliefs, and to seek, receive and impart information”.
“No one can ban or prevent the media from disseminating information of public interest, except as provided for by this law,” it says, and going on to outlaw “censorship of the media”, “interference in the activities of the media”, and “monopolisation of the media by persons or entities”.
The prohibitions covers pretty much every aspect of the way Turkmenistan’s media are currently run. The government owns and careful controls media outlets and printing houses; it dictates their editorial policies, monitors web and email use, and blocks foreign websites, especially those containing content about Turkmenistan and social networking sites. The president himself appoints editors-in-chief.
Journalists face dual censorship, imposed by their own managers and by a Soviet-style censorship agency, the State Committee for Protection of State Secrets in Print Publications.
The new law says that anyone, including individuals and non-government organisations, can set up a media outlet. At the moment, the Turkmen president is legally the “founder” of all 40 print publications. TV and radio broadcasters and the national news agency are also state institutions.
One private newspaper, called Rysgal, was set up two years ago by an association of entrepreneurs. However, each issue has to be reviewed and approved in advance, just like the state newspapers, so unsurprisingly, its content is almost identical.
This new legislation is no more than window-dressing to impress the international community. The one substantive change is designed to make the already highly restricted internet subject to the same regulation as conventional media.
International media watchdogs rank Turkmenistan among the countries where press freedom is worst. The latest Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, RSF, for example, places Turkmenistan third last, outdone only by North Korea and Eritrea.
In a statement on the new Turkmen media law, RSF described it as “disconnected from reality”. Quoted in the statement, RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire predicted that in the absence of democratic reform, the law would remain “a complete fiction”.
Journalists in Turkmenistan, who were of course excluded from discussions on the law, say media freedom is unimaginable in an environment in which censorship continues unabated in both print and broadcast media. Even the most innocuous piece has to go to senior editorial staff and then to the state secrecy committee for approval.
The legislation seems to have been prompted in part by a media conference sponsored by international donors in Ashgabat last year. The bill was clearly meant to impress the international community by hinting at progress towards greater media freedom without actually doing anything about it.
One practical effect of the law is to bring internet content into line with other forms of media. Article 1 requires domestic websites to go through the same registration processes, and thus the same kind of regulation.
Not that there are lots of exciting websites run from inside Turkmenistan – Berdymuhammedov’s election in 2007 resulted in a few internet cafes opening, government institutions starting their own sites, but little else. Any controversial web resources abroad are simply blocked. Just to be sure, though, the authorities are already drafting a separate law governing the internet.
Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR Senior Editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. www.iwpr