By News Briefing Central Asia - News Briefing Central Asia 23 Jul 10
After Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov renewed his criticism of state-run television and called for improvements to its “mediocre” output, local viewers said they doubted anything much would really change.
Addressing a cabinet meeting on July 1, Berdymuhammedov ordered officials to take swift action to rectify the “low ideological and artistic standard of Turkmen TV programmes”. He did not specify what form this action might take, beyond weekly briefings at which officials would tell journalists what was going on.
Since coming to power in 2007 Berdymuhammedov has frequently laid into the broadcast media. Observers say there have been real attempts to improve programme quality, with government funding provided for new TV stations and technical equipment. But there is little to show for it.
“The state is spending millions of dollars on improving the way television works. Staff are on high salaries by local standards and enjoy good working conditions – high-end equipment, and separate studios and rooms,” said one commentator in the capital Ashgabat. “Yet despite all this, the programmes shown on TV are dull and mediocre.”
Turkmenistan now has four terrestrial TV channels, all of them state-run. All of them – Miras, Altyn Asyr, Yashlyk, and TV-5 - broadcasts 16 hours a day in Turkmen with a ten-minute news bulletin in Russian. There is also a satellite news and music channel, TV-4, broadcasting in a wider range of languages.
Despite this apparent choice, local viewers generally agree with their president’s characterisation of programme content as vacuous. “I never watch the Turkmen channels,” said one resident of the capital Ashgabat. “Local television shows only [folk-]dancing and talking heads who repeat phrases like ‘our esteemed president” and ‘dear president’ all the time”. This man said the dif ferences between the various channels were minimal, and the only thing setting them apart was the costume worn by presenters. Altyn Asyr’s continuity announcers are men all in identical dark suits and ties, whereas the Miras channel has women in Turkmen national costume.
“A complete homogenisation of personalities”, said the viewer. A journalist working for the state newspaper Neytralny Turkmenistan singled out the Vatan news programme, which broadcast four times a day on three of the TV channels and can last up to four hours depending on the event being covered.
If President Berdymuhammedov takes part in some festive event that ends with a concert, all other programmes are cancelled and the entire concert is shown, focusing on images of the president and his entourage.
A student of international journalism at the Turkmen State University said she only watched local television when she needed to review programme content or newsreaders for an examination. “Unprofessional anchormen ask dull questions and often interrupt their interviewees,” she said. “They follow it with a selection of phrases in praised of Berdymuhammedov.”
Despite the frequent criticisms the president levels at Turkmen TV, local observers doubt they will see any substantive changes to content and overall quality.
“We stopped paying attention to his criticisms a long time ago,” said the newspaper journalist”. “It’s become a ritual. It’s clear he doesn’t actually want any changes, otherwise he would have allowed independent channels, which would create competition in the industry.” A pensioner in Abadan, a town 20 kilometres from the capital Ashgabat, said he had been saving for six months so that he could buy a satellite dish and watch Russian TV.
“You can’t operate like our TV people,” he said. “There’s nothing to watch. Everything is the same on all the channels – praise for the authorities and window-dressing”. He is particularly resentful of history programmes that distort the past to suit present ideology. “According to our television, it was Turkmens who won the Great Patriotic War [Second World War],” he laughed.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.