The government of Turkmenistan has defended its rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in New York, asserting that journalists are able to report on any topic they like and that everyone is free to participate in political life.
Commentors in Turkmenistan say the government’s account is fictitious and the Central Asian state remains as repressive as ever.
Turkmen officials told the UN committee, meeting on March 15-16 that torture did not exist in their country and that judges were independent.
Yazdursan Gurbannazarova, who heads country’s National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, said the media could report on any issue, while Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hajiyev said people were gradually getting used to their freedom to engage in politics.
The UN committee noted a new willingness on the government’s part to improve its “long and troubling human rights record”, but said it was still a long way off meeting international standards.
In its latest global report, the New York-based advocacy Human Rights Watch described Turkmenistan as one of the world’s most repressive countries, where the state controls all print and electronic media and blocks opposition websites.
A journalist with the state newspaper Neytralny Turkmenistan told IWPR that censorship was imposed by multiple agencies including a committed for state secrets and the editors themselves.
“Everything we write about and report on must comply with the requirements of the presidential office,” the journalist said.
According to the Association of Independent Lawyers of Turkmenistan, based in The Netherlands, some 18,000 people in the country are on a blacklist that prevents them from leaving the country.
The list nearly doubled in size after President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power in 1997, and includes journalists, political prisoners, relatives of dissidents, anyone who has travelled abroad, and others whom the intelligence agency regards as suspect.
Bekmyrat, a 50-year-old Ashgabat resident, described how his son was arbitrarily prevented from travelling to Britain to study. Officials took the student off a flight at Ashgabat airport without giving a reason.
“When we contacted the state migration service, the prosecutor general’s office and the National Security Ministry, none would give us a meaningful answer as to why he was barred from leaving,” he said.
Bekmyrat continued fruitlessly contacting government agencies until his son’s visa expired.
The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders classes Turkmenistan as “an enemy of the internet” along with Burma, Syria and North Korea.
Only 2.2 per cent of Turkmenistan’s nearly five million people have access to the internet, according to internetworldstats.com, and this limited usage allows the security services to monitor web traffic closely.
Selbi, a 24-year-old resident of the eastern town of Turkmenabat, said she was unable to access social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal.
“When I tried to open those pages, it became apparent that my attempts to access banned sites were being tracked by the intelligence agency and that it was entirely likely I would be listed as a dissident,” she said.
Public sector workers and students are often compelled to attend large-scale official gatherings and to greet Berdymuhammedov on his official visits around the country.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.