The Kazak and Turkmen presidents have agreed to make each other’s media accessible in their own countries, which NBCentralAsia observers say may prompt the authorities in Ashgabat to relax tight media controls.
On May 28, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov and his Kazak counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev agreed to increase the availability of television broadcasts and distribute newspapers in what was billed as a bid to preserve the two states’ “common cultural, educational and information space”.
NBCentralAsia analysts say Turkmenistan’s media are so tightly controlled that people in Kazakstan are unlikely to learn anything about what it is really like there. The “exchange” could prove an unequal one, in which Kazak media are censored by the Turkmen authorities. At the same time, a flow of more objective information coming from Kazakstan might prompt the Turkmen authorities to relax their grip.
Petr Svoik, head of the non-government Almaty Public Anti-Monopoly Commission, sees the agreement as a sign that the Turkmen leadership is opening up in areas other than energy.
“Under this new president, Turkmenistan won’t be so careful to close itself off to external information sources. [Kazak TV channels] are likely to be shown there as far as that is technically possible,” he said.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, an émigré group based in Bulgaria, says the Turkmen media still amount to a “vacuum”, filled only by the leadership’s ideology.
Turkmenistan is unlikely to offer its neighbour anything more than a positive, ideologically-coloured picture of itself, and cooperation is likely to be amount to broadcasting selected state TV channels and distributing the official press, she said.
All media outlets in Turkmenistan are state-owned, and radio and television channels broadcast only in the Turkmen language. It is illegal to subscribe to or import foreign newspapers and journals, and local journalists who cooperate with foreign media outlets are persecuted.
By contrast, the media in Kazakstan are divided among large commercial holding companies which represent influential political and business groups, and it is these owners who dictate editorial policy.
Although more restrictive legislation was passed in Kazakstan last year, the media still enjoy more freedom than their Turkmen counterparts. The information exchange could thus encourage Ashgabat to liberalise its own media in the future.