Despite the Turkmen president’s repeated emphasis on improving access to the internet, things have recently deteriorated, with more sites blocked than usual and service generally slower.
Some analysts say the problems have been created by the security services, who are unhappy with President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s pledge to open up access to the internet and are deliberately subverting it.
Reports of tighter restrictions emerged late last month, and by April 28 local users found they were unable to access any of the popular Central Asian or foreign websites. The sites that were blocked were Centrasia.ru, Deutsche Welle, RFE/RL, the oppositional sites Gundogar, Vatan and Turkmenskaya Iskra, and Chrono-tm, run by the Turkmen Human Rights Initiative.
“We are now in an information vacuum,” said an observer in Ashgabat.
As a result, ten or so new internet cafes opened around the country, but few people used them as they cost a lot by local standards, and ID has to be shown to use them.
One of these issues is being addressed – from May 1, the hourly fee was cut from 60 to 30 manats (from five to 2.5 US dollars).
There are no publicly-available statistics on the number of internet users in Turkmenistan.
A specialist with Turkmentelekom, the state monopoly provider, says the number of applicants for a connection is “growing steadily”. In the capital Ashgabat, more than six thousand applications were received. He added that each application is scrutinised on an individual basis.
On April 14, the president criticised Turkmentelekom for the poor quality and low speed of its connections, which made it harder to navigate the web. He also gave orders for all new buildings to be fitted with modern multimedia technology, with the internet to be available even in kindergartens.
People in Turkmenistan say after that following Berdymuhammedov’s speech, things started to get worse.
“Visitors to NGO resource centres complain that the internet is slow and their emails are disappearing. The explanation they get alludes to server problems. They say it’s impossible to open even the most harmless of sites,” said one civil society activist.
A pupil in the final year of school said, “I’d earlier visited a resource centre with internet access and spent five or ten minutes reading about young people in other countries, but now this is no longer available and I don’t know what to do.”
Commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia say the tighter controls are no coincidence. One observer from the northern Dashoguz region said the security service disagreed with Berdymuhammedov’s desire to offer better internet and mobile phone services. The secret police, he said, are “plainly, brazenly sabotaging” the president’s orders.
“Despite the apparently positive changes taking place in Turkmenistan, the deluge of [foreign] criticism directed at the new president and his policies is increasing rather than diminishing,” he said. “And the security force chiefs don’t like that.”
Another commentator agreed, suggesting that certain senior officials paid lip-service to the president, while at the same time trying to block off the flow of information out of the country and identify individuals working with foreign media and other organisations.
A source in a regional branch of the Ministry for National Security confirmed that internet controls were being tightened. Anyone thought to be using the internet was under surveillance, and web traffic was being “carefully filtered”.
“There are special officers of the security service assigned to monitor everybody who has internet access,” said the source. “They can read any kind of information with the help of the latest software.”
A private – and illegal – operator who provides services via satellite connections said the authorities were now able to filter access to anonymous proxy servers and VPN (“virtual private networks”) technology.
He noted that the security services were also able to make it harder for people to use “asymmetric” connections, which use a combination of modem and satellite systems. Although this system costs between 300 and 500 dollars, it has become popular among better-off people who work in business or for international organisations.
“Many of my clients are now panicking, and there have even been cases where businesses that require a fast internet connection have closed down,” said the provider.
In late March, Turkmenistan was branded an enemy of the internet by the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders.