Turkmenistan: Release of journalist does not signal any improvement

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While there has been some recent progress on human rights in neighbouring Uzbekistan, the situation in Turkmenistan remains essentially unchanged and fundamental freedoms continue to be seriously curtailed in the context of the ongoing economic crisis. A journalist imprisoned three years ago was finally released, but only after serving out his sentence and in ill health. As before, any criticism of state policies are repressed.

This update covers developments relating to the protection of freedom of expression, association and assembly in Turkmenistan from March to June 2018. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared it for the CIVICUS Monitor based on TIHR’s monitoring of the situation in this Central Asian country.

Expression and Association

Parliamentary elections highlight lack of space for free expression

On 25th March 2018, parliamentary elections took place in Turkmenistan. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did not carry out systematic or comprehensive monitoring of election-day proceedings but did deploy a small expert team to assess the elections. This team concluded that the “political environment is only nominally pluralist and does not offer voters political alternatives”, as well as that that the “[e]xercise of fundamental freedoms is severely curtailed, inhibiting free expression of the voters’ will”. The team stressed in particular that the “media landscape is characterized by the state’s monopoly and absence of alternative or critical views, depriving voters of the ability to make informed choices”.

As covered before, Turkmenistan nominally has a multi-party system; since the adoption of the country’s first-ever Law on Political Parties in 2012, two more political parties have emerged aside the pre-existing, so-called Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. However, all these parties are pro-presidential and the parliament is fully comprised of pro-presidential deputies. There is also no real division of power in the country and the parliament is not independent of the executive.

New bottom ranking in international survey

In the 2018 Press Freedom Index that Reporters Without Borders published in April 2018, Turkmenistan was ranked 178th out of 180 countries, with only Eritrea and North Korea behind it. This was the same ranking as Turkmenistan received in 2017. Reporters Without Borders pointed to the extensive government control of media, censorship of the internet and harassment of journalists working for media outlets based abroad (for more on recent developments in this area, please see below).

Turkmenistan has also repeatedly featured among the worst rated countries in other international surveys measuring civil and poltiical freedom across the world.

State propaganda and state interference with media

As covered in earlier updates, all national media outlets in Turkmenistan are controlled by the state and under pressure to focus on reporting about positive developments and achievements of the government, while refraining from covering the current economic crisis and other serious problems in the country. The new Law on TV and Radio Broadcasting adopted earlier this year requires that TV and radio broadcasts should create “a positive image of Turkmenistan”.

In a recent example of state-imposed propaganda, local media reported that “stability” had been achieved with respect to ensuring food security and that there is an “abundance” of agricultural products in the country, although there has been a lack of basic foodstuffs such as flower, egg, oil and sugar in the context of the current economic crisis. In some parts of the country, bread has become scarce.

The state also continues to interfere with the editorial policies of media and the president personally appoints and dismisses chief editors, although national law does not grant him such powers. For example, in April 2018, the president dismissed the deputy chief editor of the state-run journal Edebiýat we Sungat (Literature and Art), Kaybov Myratdurdy, and appointed another in his place, Allaberdyeva Ogulmaysa.

New cases of state dismantling of satellite dishes

The authorities continue their arbitrary campaign against satellite dishes, which residents use to watch and listen to foreign TV and radio channels as an alternative to national, state-controlled channels. This campaign has been under way for years, with privately owned satellite dishes being forcibly removed under the pretext that they spoil the city view. In a recent case, in April 2018, the local authorities in Turkmenbashi removed satellite dishes from apartment buildings facing major streets in the city without requesting the consent of the owners. According to information from the Netherlands-based exiled NGO, the Democratic Civic Union, with which TIHR cooperates, more than 400 satellite dishes were dismantled in Turkmenbashi.

Persecution of critical voices

Critical voices, including journalists working for the Prague-based Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other foreign outlets, continue to be persecuted.

  • In late May 2018, journalist Saparmed Nepeskuliev was finally released from prison after serving a three-year prison sentence handed to him in 2015 when he was charged with unlawfully possessing a medical drug banned in Turkmenistan. Before he was convicted, he was detained incommunicado for weeks without his family being informed of his whereabouts and his sentence is widely believed to have been in retaliation for his reporting. He had to serve his entire prison sentence, despite repeated calls for his release by the international community, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Nepeskuliev’s health seriously deteriorated in prison.

As covered before, RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova has repeatedly been subjected to intimidation and harassment. During the period covered by this update, new cases of harassment took place. On 9th May 2018, when Achilova was taking pictures near the Eternal Flame memorial in an Ashgabat suburb for an article about Victory Day celebrations, a group of unknown perpetrators dressed in civilian clothes assaulted her. According to the journalist, they insulted her, took away her camera and deleted her photos, forced her into a car and threatened her if she did not stop working for RFE/RL. After being held for two hours, she was allowed to go. In another incident on 9th June 2018, in the city of Yoloten, two unknown young men attacked Achilova, accusing her of taking photos without permission, and attempting to take her bag and hitting her so hard she fell to the ground. After passers-by intervened, the perpetrators fled. The journalist told RFE/RL that police also arbitrarily confiscated the car of her relatives with whom she was staying in Yoloten, indicating that they had received an order from above to do so during her visit to the city. The car was returned to her relatives after two days.

Achilova’s children have also faced harassment in apparent retaliation for her journalistic work. Unknown perpetrators broke the window of the car of her disabled son in April 2017, and while police opened an investigation, it was soon closed without results, although the attack had been caught on camera. Achilova’s daughter has been banned from travelling abroad without explanation, a measure sanctioned by the migration service. In a recent response to a complaint filed by Achilova on behalf of her children, the country’s Ombudsperson simply stated that the measures taken by the authorities were “lawful”. This concise response thwarted the journalist’s hopes for a thorough and impartial assessment of her complaint.

Peaceful Assembly

As covered in earlier updates, Turkmenistan’s authorities forcibly mobilise residents to attend and participate in various official gatherings and celebrations. This practice runs contrary to the right to freedom of assembly, a basic element of which is voluntary participation in assemblies. Among others, UN experts have criticised the state’s actions in this regard.

A recent example of this problematic practice is as follows:

  • On 3rd June 2018, the authorities mobilised residents en masse for a state-organised biking event. Thousands of state employees, students and schoolchildren were forced to take part in this event across the country, during which the president also personally participated. In addition, as reported by RFE/RL, participants had to obtain bikes and sports clothes for the event at their own cost.