Turkmen leader calls for private newspaper, but few local journalists take him at his word.
By Aisha Khan - Central Asia Human Rights Reporting Project RCA Issue 625, 2 Aug 10
The authorities in Turkmenistan have unveiled plans to allow privately-owned newspapers to operate for the first time since the country came into being in 1991. Media experts and civil society representatives doubt this will create anything approaching independent media, as any new press outlet will still be tightly controlled by government.
Speaking at a July 9 cabinet meeting that was shown on national TV, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov indicated that in the first instance, the focus should be on business reporting. At the meeting, the president instructed the head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Dadaev, to set up a newspaper and a magazine which would report on “successes and positive experiences in the enterprise sector”, publish new laws relating to business, and carry advertising. Berdymuhammedov indicated that press outlets might also be set up to cover other areas, but did not issue any firm instructions on this. Turkmenistan is the only one of the former Soviet republics that has no privately-owned media. The five national TV stations, five radio stations, 24 newspapers, 15 magazines and one news agency are all owned and run by central government or state agencies. Freedom of the Press 2010: A Global Survey of Media Independence, the annual report from the United States-based watchdog Freedom House included Turkmenistan in its list of the ten worst abusers of press freedom. In its overall ranking of 196 countries, Turkmenistan was in 194th place. Given this record, rights activists and journalists do not believe President Berdymuhammedov plans a radical change of direction. Instead, they say, they predict that the authorities will carefully select those in charge of the new non-state-media outlets and carefully monitor their activities and output. A reporter formerly with state-run TV said his experience of working there had left him sceptical of pledges to allow independent media. “The journalists are constantly monitored by the security service,” he said. “Everything is checked both by the editor and by the special [censorship] department. There are instructions on a daily basis, brainwashing, and constant reminders about what we must not allow to go out on air.” The journalist predicted that the apparent liberalisation would turn out to be a highly regulated process, as was the case with an earlier announcement on the creation of a more pluralist political system in this one-party state. “When the president started talking about a multi-party system at the beginning of this year, we were surprised that he immediately limited it to establishing an agrarian party,” he said. “The president is now going along the same road…. The leadership has already decided who’s going to be permitted to set up non-state media, and who won’t be allowed to dream of such a thing.” A veteran journalist in the capital Ashgabat said that if the president really meant what he said, there were many media professionals who would be only too happy to try their hand at running a private media outlet. Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a human rights group based in Bulgaria, sees the announcement as an attempt to improve Turkmenistan’s international image. “Berdymuhammedov is most likely making another attempt to show that progress is being made towards creating a more liberal society, which he is always promising to do,” she said.
Aisha Khan is the pseudonym for an IWPR trainee journalist.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.