Turkmenistan has been called an isolationist state and a "hermit kingdom" for many reasons, but one reason is surely the difficulty of getting objective information from the country.
One of the correspondents from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlyk --- Ogulsapar Muradova -- died in prison in September 2006, apparently as a result of being severely beaten. In November 2003, Azatlyk correspondent Saparmurat Ovezberdiev was forced into a vehicle, taken to a cemetery outside Ashgabat, beaten, and dumped beside the road. And then there are all those Azatlyk correspondents detained and arrested over the last 20 years.
But Azatlyk is still working and still has correspondents in Turkmenistan trying to report on what is happening inside the country, Authorities there haven’t done anything to make that easy.
All the incidents cited below happened between mid-December 2013 and late January 2014.
First, Azatlyk’s correspondents are well aware of the situation and the rules in Turkmenistan: You don’t look for information that would make the government look bad, and if you happen to obtain such information you run a big risk in making it known to the outside world.
But some topics are fair game and social problems are possible to report about, even though, as we will see, the boundaries are not well defined.
An attempt to report on long ticket lines at the train station in the southern city of Mary resulted in an Azatlyk correspondent spending two-and-a-half hours at a local police station.
The correspondent was filming the line to purchase tickets, not any other part of the train station. When police approached him, he identified himself as a correspondent for Azatlyk and explained his purpose. At the station, agents from the organized crime and counterterrorism department joined police in questioning the correspondent. In the end the film was deleted and the correspondent was advised not to film in areas that are considered to be strategic facilities.
Another story involved another long line -- this time automobiles waiting to undergo mandatory vehicle inspections in the eastern part of the country. Official certification of a vehicle is important for car owners because, with it, they can claim their free allotment of gasoline, so people must endure queuing.
An Azatlyk correspondent wanted to do a report on the long wait for certification and started filming the scene on their cell phone. Police spotted this journalistic activity and moved in, taking the Azatlyk correspondent to the local police where two agents from the organized crime and counterterrorism department also took part in questioning that lasted some six hours. In the end, the phone, with all the pictures deleted, was returned along with the reporter’s personal documents.
An Azatlyk correspondent in Ashgabat went to cover police evicting people from their basement apartments. As the correspondent was filming someone started pulling on the camera from behind, not to take it, but simply to disrupt filming. The camera was damaged. The culprit turned out to be a policeman. The correspondent later went to the police station to confront the person responsible for damaging the camera. The policeman apologized, but did not offer to replace the device.
The anniversary of Goekdepe was January 12. It commemorates the 1881 massacre of Turkmen by Russian forces at Goekdepe and has been marked in Turkmenistan since it became independent after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
It is a big event and state media covers it every year, but not Azatlyk this year. An Azatlyk correspondent attending ceremony at Goekdepe tried to film prayers being said but a man moved alongside and continually jostled the correspondent so it was impossible to film. An argument broke out and the Azatlyk correspondent was hustled out of the hall where the ceremony was being held.
Turkmenistan held parliamentary elections in December. Western organizations, such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), sent teams to watch (not monitor officially) Turkmenistan’s elections.
The OSCE people gave press conferences and made some critical comments about the conduct of campaigning and elections. The Azatlyk correspondent going to cover one such event was stopped by security and detained for nearly three hours before being released to catch the very end of the press conference.
There’s more, but that probably gives a good enough picture of what it’s like to try to report from Turkmenistan.
It’s hardly boasting to note that RFE/RL has correspondents reporting from very dangerous places and often these people are risking their lives to get valuable information out to the public.
Turkmenistan does not receive as much attention as many of these other places, but the commitment and hardship of Azatlyk correspondents is not less than that of their colleagues in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Muhammad Tahir, Bruce Pannier