President has promised clean elections in February, but critics doubt if he’ll risk losing power.
A new media law designed to grant comprehensive press freedoms in Turkmenistan is being met with scorn by press freedom groups who say the central Asian country will continue to impose some of the harshest censorship on earth.
Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, the President and Prime Minister of the former Soviet constituent country, enacted a law on January 4 stating that “the State shall guarantee the freedom of the media to express an opinion”.
Turkmenistan has 39 publications, five radio stations, seven national TV stations and one press agency, all of which were owned by the president until January 25 of this year. Rysgal, the only privately-owned newspaper, is a business publication that reviews enterprise, and is also subject to censorship.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based media advocacy group, has consistently ranked the country near the bottom of its annual press freedom index, and responded sceptically to this new law, calling it a “dead letter” which was “disconnected from reality”.
“[Turkmenistan] is really a totalitarian regime where the population will have to adhere to the political leader, where even indifference is criminalised,” Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at RSF, told Al Jazeera.
“Real reforms, with such a background, will take tremendous efforts and much time.”
Turkmenistan ranks better only than Eritrea and North Korea in RSF’s index, while another US based media advocacy group, Freedom House, ranks the country 196 out of 197 countries in their latest report on press freedom.
According to Anna Soltan, a Turkmen journalist working with NewEurasia.net, the main medium of news in Turkmenistan is through word of mouth as the people there do not have faith in Turkmen media.
“The people are afraid to share information and views because they fear reprisals not only for themselves but for their whole family,” she said.
Most local journalists who report for foreign media have left the country or “given up on journalism”, Soltan said, due to harassment and threats from government authorities and she does not believe the new law is likely to change that.
The new law states that Turkmen citizens are free to “use any form of media for expression and opinion to seek, receive and disseminate information”, allowing them access to both local independent media and foreign media.
“Officials in that commission have huge authority so they can interfere in journalism, […] the government should not tell journalists what to do.”
– Anonymous Turkmen journalist
“No one can deny or prevent the media to disseminate information of public interest, except in accordance with law.”
The law permits a “pluralist” opinion and allows the five million Turkmen citizens unprecedented access to foreign media.
In 2011 Berdymuhammedov had ordered the removal of television satellite dishes on the grounds that they were “unsightly”, effectively putting an end to alternative perspectives streamed in from Russia and Turkey.
Although the law does not make provisions for internet regulations, another law is allegedly underway to address internet freedoms. The internet, although available, is closely controlled and highly priced.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has assisted in the formulation and drafting of the legislation since 2011, hoping to introduce a media that can function “without restrictions”.
“The law provides a very good framework of action and progress in moving forward in this area,” Andrei Muntean, spokesperson for OSCE’s Ashgabat Center, told Al Jazeera,
However, a Turkmen journalist told RSF/RE’s local service about the “blurred” rhetoric used in the new law.
“The only source the media can get money from is the government. That’s why journalists are so dependent on [them],” said the journalist speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the wealthy few in the country were not interested in investing in the media.
He pointed out that there is no mention of “Turkmenistan’s committee for guarding state secrets”, Turkmenistan’s intelligence agency officially known as the Ministry for National Security, in the 25-page legislation.
“Officials in that commission have huge authority so they can interfere in journalism… the government should not tell journalists what to do.”
Poor track record
Many critics cited Turkmenistan’s recent track record on journalists’ rights as a reason for sceptism about the progress brought by the new law.
In 2011, Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a journalist working for the US-congress funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/FL) was sentenced for “influencing or abetting” a family member to commit suicide.
He was jailed soon after he reported on a controversial explosion at an arms depot in the city of Abadan, which reportedly killed 1,300 people.
He later received amnesty from Berdymuhamedov after international pressure for his release, including several members of the US Senate who expressed their concern about censorship in the country.
Other journalists have not been so fortunate.
In 2006, Ogulsapar Myradowa, another correspondent for RFE/RL died in a high-security Turkmen prison, allegedly due to torture.
She was imprisoned a few weeks prior to her death along with her brother Sapardurdy Khadjiyev and another journalist Anagurban Amanklychev while producing a documentary for a French television channel highlighting former leader Saparmurat Niyazov’s authoritarian regime and the country’s declining educational and health systems.
“He can score public relations points by liberalising on paper, while remaining confident the media will continue to report what he wants it to report.”
– Daniel Treisman, UCLA professor
They were charged with possessing illegal arms, and sentenced to the seven years imprisonment without proper legal rights, which the United Nations denounced saying their detention violated international law.
Khadjiyev and Amanklychev, both media personnel and activists for a human rights group based in Bulgaria, remain under detention in the country and are allegedly subject to torture.
Al Jazeera sent numerous requests to Turkmen government officials in the capital city of Ashgabat as well as Turkmen embassies in US, France, India, Pakistan, UAE, Russia and Kazakhstan, but was refused comment on the law and the conditions of two jailed journalists.
Manipulating the media
Although the law seems to suggest the president is making amendments to his leadership, Daniel Treisman, professor of political science at the University of California – Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera that the new law will probably have little impact on Berdymuhammedov’s control of the press.
Turkmen leader is reportedly a shareholder in most of the country’s leading newspapers, Treisman said, meaning that he would still have influence on what Turkmenistan’s media reports without restrictive press laws.
“He can score public relations points by liberalising [laws] on paper, while remaining confident the media will continue to report what he wants it to report,” Treisman said.
“Repressive regimes manage the media in different ways. Some do it overtly, with open censorship. Others do it by prosecuting reporters under broad and vague defamation laws. Still others use illegal violence, perpetrated by thugs connected to the regime to intimidate critical journalists.”
Follow Rahul Radhakrishnan on twitter: @RahulRadhakris