A decision by the Turkmen government to make all the country’s media operate out of the same building is not so much an attempt to control broadcasters and the press – that happened long ago – as a way of making it easier to keep tabs on journalists.
On October 17, President Saparmurat Niazov formally opened the Palace of Free Creativity in the centre of Ashgabat. The ten-storey building is shaped like an open book, and will be home to some 200 journalists working for the state media.
The international watchdog group Reporters Without Borders described the move as “a crude and outrageous provocation”, saying President Niazov “talks about [the centre] being free and comfortable, while there are absolutely no free media in the country”.
In the group’s Worldwide Index of Press Freedom, Turkmenistan ranks close to the bottom and Niazov is described as an enemy of free speech. Journalists in the country are subject to intimidation, persecution and torture, and afraid to express their views openly. All media outlets are state-run and the president himself is regarded as their founder.
NBCentralAsia analysts believe that gathering all the state press under one roof is a deliberate move to enhance control over the newspapers, and to ensure there is no repeat of an incident last year when leaflets calling for civil disobedience against the “dictator’s regime” were printed at a publishing house.
Many editorial offices used to be located in the old Press House building, which also had printing facilities, making it easier to publish newspapers and journals. Now the editorial offices are at a distance from the printers, and will be linked to them only by secure communications.
“Niazov is afraid that people with minds of their own will get together with the printers and start producing leaflets,” said one Turkmen journalist.
Other commentators say the president will use the move to allow his secret police to carry out more surveillance on journalists and their contacts. As a result, freedom of speech can only get worse.
“In the old Press House, journalists could wander around the various editorial offices unhindered and swap information over a cup of tea. Now you can’t even open a window,” said an Ashgabat-based reporter.
NBCentralAsia’s analysts say the new press building is only the latest in a continuing trend of shifting state agencies into modern new facilities, with high security at the gate and sophisticated surveillance systems inside.
Several government departments and banks have already moved to new offices at which every employee is issued with an electronic access card. This card restricts freedom of movement in the building, so that according to one informant in Ashgabat, some clerks “are not even allowed to go upstairs”.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)