13.4 Media and government
The existing system of government control over the media consists of the official prohibition of the publication of criticism, with the exception of criticism made by the president. As for those journalists who are working for the foreign media, they are almost all Turmeni citizens and therefore are not eligible for the level of protection afforded to foreign citizens. Following the publication of any negative information, they can be called in to have a conversation at the Committee for National Security, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or to the vice-premier supervising the press. Usually, journalists do not reveal the content of these conversations afterwards.
For a long time there was no one government-oriented ideological standard-bearer for the Turkmeni press, but in May 1998, two of the main national newspapers "Turkmenistan" and "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" published a series of articles in Russian and Turkmeni 1 signed by the press-secretary of the president, Kakamurad Balyev. The series was entitled: "A spiritual reflection: the politics of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi relating to the media". These articles were presented as a kind of academic offering and represented one of the first attempts to create a general direction for the activities of Turkmeni journalists. The opinion of the head of state was that the political needs of Turkmenistan called for journalists to understand their responsibilities, never to allow themselves to pervert the facts. Journalists, he was reported as saying, should never draw uncertain conclusions from events they were reporting. In the articles, the press-secretary quoted Niyazov as saying: "the process of selecting facts requires the crystal-clear integrity and responsible qualities of journalists. They have no right to spoil people's mood or anger them with hurried conclusions and immature thoughts." In an interview given to Za vilnu Ukrainu newspaper, the president remarked: "When talking about an article or a programme, I judge it on its truthfulness and sense of responsibility."
There was a particular accent on criticism. There is no way of criticising the president himself, the government or any state organisation whatsoever in the mass media of Turkmenistan. Any criticism at all is problematic. Apparently, one of Niyazov's sayings is that he hates criticism "for its own sake".
13.4.1 "Enemies of the president and the people"
This section looks specifically at the content of one article which most acutely symbolises the difference between the attitude of Turkmeni bureaucrats to journalism and the attitude of those people attempting to develop an independent analysis of events within the republic.
On the 13th of June 1998, the editor of the youth newspaper Nesil, Annamurad Poladov, and the editor of the military newspaper Esger, Akmurad Khodzhaniyazov, published a peculiar article in Turkmeni. Entitled "Spit in the sky, and it will land in your face", it referred to contemporary "enemies of the people". Written in three parts, it began with a poem called "The godless cannot repent". The rest was made up of a series of offensive caricatures of a number of Turkmeni opposition figures.
The calibre of the article is demonstrated by the following excerpt relating to the person of Yusul Khydyr2: "Born in 1964. Entirely covered in hair, cross between human and ape. In a word, this bearded mongrel runs around everywhere barking about Turkmenistan in the faint hope that someone will listen to him. A gullible fool, he takes pride in his association with Radio Azatlyk. He abandoned his long-suffering wife and children to take up with a yellow-haired woman of low morals."
Sapargeldy Khanov ( who "recently tried to hand over control of the Turkmenistan mass media to the democracy demagogues and other evil elements"), Mamed Sakhet ("No-one knows where or when this scoundrel was born...a terrible alcoholic and drug addict"), Shirali Nurmuradov, Akkmukhamed Velsapar and a selection of others are all mentioned by name in this article.
Some of the men mentioned are emigres living in Russia or Prague and are clearly opposed to the current regime, others live and work in Turkmenistan -- but all are targeted in this article as being agents or employees of Radio Liberty, and therefore enemies of the people, even Sapargeldy Khanov, who was head of the press service of the Cabinet of Ministers when this was written.
13.4.2 Foreign correspondents
The activities of foreign journalists in the territory of Turkmenistan are regulated by a special presidential resolution, specifically No.1536 of the 30th of October 1993. In order to open an office for foreign correspondence, the management of the media company applying must first refer to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The decision is made by agreement of the Department for Press Affairs and the Media of the Cabinet of Ministers and usually takes two months. Multi-entry visas are given to accredited journalists for a duration of six months to a year. Accreditation must be applied for through the Ministry of Internal Affairs, usually a process of two months, and will be given for not longer than the duration of the journalist's passport. The Ministry can revoke accreditation if the journalist is found to have broken the laws of the republic.
Within the resolution, there is a specific point which stresses that accredited foreign journalists have similar rights to diplomats to carry in and out of the country printed and recorded material which are necessary to their work. They must inform the department of information about any journeys they plan to make within the country.
It has recently come to light that the Department of Press of the Cabinet of Ministers is preparing an amendment to the presidential resolution which would restrict the activities of foreign journalists currently allowed.
It is possible in theory to get accreditation to work in Turkmenistan, but access to information -- even of a positive nature -- is restricted. State bureaucrats simply refuse to meet journalists or give out information. The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that on the 30th of October 1998, Youshan Anna Kurbanov (a correspondent for Radio Liberty) was detained for two weeks without charge on his way back to Prague. Despite the presidential resolution, which allows journalists to carry audio material out of the country, Kurbanov's audio tapes were confiscated.
1 "According to Greg Myre of the Associated Press,
the abrupt switch from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet has
left many adults functionally illiterate and unable to read state-run
newspapers." Committee to Protect Journalists, http://www.cpj.org/countrystatus/1997/Europe/Turkmenistan.html
2 A former employee of Radio Turkmenistan. He has been working with the opposition emmigres from Turkmenistan for a long time and now works for Radio Liberty. He lives in Ashkhabad.