INTERNATIONAL DAY AGAINST CYBER-CENSORSHIP
IN 2011, TURKMENISTAN IS STILL AN "ENEMY OF THE INTERNET"
The Turkmen government has curbed the very recent Internet growth and continues to practice widespread censorship. Its monopolistic takeover of the cell telephone market has allowed it to enhance its control over communications. The international community seems more determined to make concessions than to exert any real pressure on this country, in view of its vast energy and strategic potential.
Prohibitive costs of Internet access
Although President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow finally allowed Turkmen to access the Web in 2008, many technical and financial barriers still remain. Internet access is possible, but its generalised use is not encouraged. Apart from the few businesses and foreign embassies which can access the Worldwide Web, the few other Internet users can only access an ultra-censored version of the Internet nicknamed “the Turkmenet.” Very strict filtering is focusing on opposition Turkmen-language publications, targeting primarily local users and potential dissidents, mainly for linguistic reasons. Opposition websites such as XpoHo.tm and Gundogar, and regional news sites covering Central Asia such as ferghana.ru and eurasianet, are blocked. YouTube and LiveJournal were rendered inaccessible late in 2009 to prevent Turkmen from blogging or sending videos abroad. Facebook and Twitter are also blocked.
However, Turkmen can view most generalist NGO websites. The same applies to Russian and Turkmen media websites that contain no articles critical of Turkmenistan, because of the significant commercial ties between the two countries.
In view of the climate of terror prevailing in the country, Turkmen netizens do not discuss political or societal subjects online. They consult their email boxes and exchange messages with their friends via Skype or cell phone instant messaging services. A few Turkmen social networks were created about two years ago. The Teswirlar.com forum and the blog platform Talyplar.com are highly popular among the country’s netizens and the diaspora. They receive hundreds of visitors every day.
One notable improvement is the fact that Turkmen citizens are now allowed to have personal computers, even if the latter’s purchase price automatically puts them out of reach for all but the elite. The setting up of WiFi connections affords users more flexibility and allows them to avoid having to communicate their personal information, as they need to do when ordering a subscription or in a cybercafé. The authorities keep these establishments under very close surveillance. On the other hand, netizens no longer have to tell the manager which websites they want to consult, as was previously the case.
Most Turkmen connect from cybercafés, since the regime imposes prohibitive rates for Internet access. An unlimited monthly Internet subscription at a speed of 64 Kbit/sec costs $213.16. The cost for ADSL is almost $7,000, even though the average monthly salary is about $200! For those who choose unlimited access, the cost will be $25 for 1 MB.
Bandwidth speed is often very slow. Some users who have private connections complain that they can only use the Internet a short time during the day. At night, the speed is somewhat faster. Some of them go to the offices of international organisations to get access to the World Wide Web.
Cell phones under pressure
In December 2010, a shortage of cell phone SIM cards once again caused long waiting lines in Ashgabat, according to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website, published by the NGO Turkmen Initiative of Human Rights. Long lines also formed in front of the Altyn Asyr brand shops.
This “shortage” coincided with the departure from Turkmenistan of the Russian telecommunications company MTS, leaving some two million Mobile TeleSystem subscribers without access. The licence granted to MTS-Turkmenistan was suspended, effective on 21 December 2010, by the Ministry of Communications. The only competitor of the state-owned company and market leader Altyn Asyr was thus eliminated. Altyn Asyr, which until then only had a few hundred thousand subscribers, now enjoys a monopoly status, which assures the government an even stronger control of cell phones in terms of censorship and surveillance. Unlike MTS, Altyn Asyr blocks access to independent and opposition websites.
A return to repression?
On 30 September, President Berdimuhamedow gave a belligerent speech before National Security Ministry officials, calling on them to fight against those who “defame our secular and democratic law-based state and try to destroy the unity and solidarity of our society.”
The website of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) was hacked in early October 2010 and had to change its host site. These attacks followed an interview which the NGO’s director, Farid Tukhbatullin, granted on 28 September 2010 to the satellite TV station K+. Broadcast in Central Asia, it was therefore accessible to the Turkmen population. Farid Tukhbatullin, who is exiled in Vienna, addressed the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. The authorities were apparently displeased with his comments.
In the last few months, several dissidents have been forbidden to leave the country, including human rights activist Umida Dzhumabaeva, one of the most recent examples, in July 2010. The authorities reproach her for her activities and relations with other dissidents. She was accused, totally without proof, of having delivered information to opposition websites.
Is the international community prepared to offer any concessions?
Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, plays a key role in supporting NATO within the framework of the war in Afghanistan, mainly by authorising it to access Turkmen air space, which the U.S. views as a strategic asset. Despite this, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, while visiting the country in February 2011, conveyed a warning to Central Asian countries which practice harsh censorship: “It is important for leaders of countries where the companies are controlled to listen to the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt.”
This position contrasts with that of French diplomacy. According to a cable leaded by WikiLeaks and published in the newspaper Le Monde, "The French Embassy refrains from speaking out on the issues of religious freedom or human rights so as not to compromise (contracts with the Group) Bouygues,” which enjoys a privileged status in the country.
As for the European Union, it is about to enter into a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan, which would include a monitoring clause concerning the human rights situation and calls for the country’s democratisation, under penalty of suspension. The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee took a position in January 2011 in favour of signing this political and economic agreement.