By Oguljamal Yazliyeva
September 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On June 18, 2006, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights (THF) released a report on a "new wave of arrests of civil activists." It said Turkmen security forces had arrested human-rights activists Annagurban Amangylyjov, Yelena Ovezova, Sapardurdy Hajiyev, and RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. All of them were held for allegedly possessing banned weapons.
The 58-year-old Muradova -- a former member of the THF -- had been reporting on deteriorating social conditions in Turkmenistan. At that time of her arrest, she had worked for RFE/RL for only three months. After her arrest, it was reported that Turkmen security agencies had earlier cut her telephone line and put her house under constant surveillance.
According to the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, she also was followed by security-service agents and placed on video surveillance for 20 days before her arrest. Despite such pressures, Muradova continued performing her job as a journalist.
September 14, 2006, became a black day on the calendar for Muradova’s family, which includes three children and grandchildren.
Turkmen Security officials informed the family that Muradova had died and claimed her death was from natural causes. However, people who saw her body say it showed signs of Muradova having been severely beaten.
One year later, there has been no thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to Muradova’s sentencing in a closed trial and her death in custody in prison. Her death is a tragic example of the overall human-rights condition in Turkmenistan.
Censorship Of Media Continues
Longtime authoritarian Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov died three months after Muradova, in December 2006, yet there has been little change in the bleak status of press freedom in Turkmenistan.
Unfortunately, strict censorship of information and of the news media -- which is almost completely controlled by the state -- continues. Journalists for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service -- who provide the only source of independent information in the country -- are regularly subjected to threats and harassment by the authorities.
"The actions by the government taken against journalists who candidly express their views once again shows that there is no way for freedom of expression in Turkmenistan," said Hanamov Nurmuhammet, the leader of the Republican Party in exile. "Once again, it shows that authorities want to destroy independent journalists. It emphasizes the fact that free media and free expression is banned in the country."
"Countries like Turkmenistan don’t want a free press, don’t want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments." -- Jean-Francois Julliard, Reporters Without BordersIn an interview with RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Jean-Francois Julliard, a news editor at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, "Countries like Turkmenistan don’t want a free press, don’t want the journalists to be able to speak freely and to criticize freely their governments."
He added: "This is the reason why in a lot of countries -- including Central Asian countries and Turkmenistan -- the authorities try to do their best to control the press, to control the independent media, and to try to shut down the critical voices."
However, there are some very small signs of change in the liberalization of Turkmen society.
On August 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov approved the pardon and release of 11 political prisoners. Additionally, Turkmenistan plans to release more than 9,000 convicts in line with a massive amnesty on the occasion of the "Night of Omnipotence" during the holy month of Ramadan. Many are hopeful that all journalists, prisoners of conscience, and human-rights activists currently imprisoned in Turkmenistan will be released.
Elsa Vidal, the head of the Europe desk at RSF, said in commenting on a letter sent by RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard to Berdymukhammedov on August 17 that: "The important thing for us is that we need to show that we are closely witnessing what is happening in Turkmenistan and that we want to bring support to any step Mr. Berdymukhammedov is willing to take to change the regime into a more democratic sort of state."
Muradova was a brave woman who dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom of expression. And her name will not be forgotten. In May, RSF and the mayor’s office of the French town of Bayeux inaugurated a memorial for journalists killed on the job. Muradova’s name was engraved on the stone pillar next to the names of other journalists killed in 2006.
RFE/RL Director of Broadcasting Michele DuBach, who attended the ceremony, remembered Muradova by saying, "Ogulsapar Muradova wanted to make difference. She was a journalist, a mother, and a grandmother. Indeed, [her reporting] did make a difference in Turkmenistan, but she paid a price."