Freedom of the Press
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Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
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President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov failed to implement substantive reforms during 2008, and the media environment in Turkmenistan remained one of the most repressive in the world. During a public address in January, the president told journalists to focus on reporting “the stability which prevails in all spheres of life, including state governance.” A new constitution adopted in September strengthened the country’s already autocratic presidency. Though libel remains a criminal offense, the law is rarely invoked given the intensity of self-censorship in the country and the extreme scarcity of independent and critical reporting.
Throughout the year, authorities aggressively harassed local correspondents working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), essentially the country’s only remaining source of independent news. It also barred four RFE/RL correspondents from traveling abroad. The campaign of intimidation escalated in June, even as Turkmenistan hosted a formal Human Rights Dialogue with the European Union. Security officers detained RFE/RL correspondent Sazak Durdymuradov and held him in a psychiatric facility for two weeks, where he was beaten and tortured. That same month, correspondent Osman Halliyev was placed under aggressive surveillance by state security. Correspondent Gurbansultan Achilova was detained and threatened by security officers on three separate occasions during the year. In January, she was interrogated for two days after being accused of publishing articles that were critical of the government. She was only released after signing an agreement promising to stop working for RFE/RL until she gained formal press accreditation. The government also continued to obstruct any meaningful investigation of the September 2006 death of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova while in police custody, despite credible reports that she died under torture. A small number of foreign correspondents who avoided reporting on politically sensitive issues maintained bureaus in Ashgabad. Other foreign reporters continued to encounter insurmountable obstacles to accreditation, forcing them to work unofficially if at all. The government rarely gives accreditation to foreign outlets and only for coverage of specific events where their work can be heavily monitored. Moreover, many local journalists are fearful of working with foreign correspondents, and many citizens avoid being interviewed by them, as such contact has often led to punishment.
The government retained its absolute monopoly over domestic media in 2008, directly controlling not only all domestic media outlets, but also the printing presses, broadcasting facilities, and other infrastructure on which they depended. Printing presses are prevented from publishing material that is unpopular with the government, including all fiction. Authorities also maintained a ban on foreign newspapers and periodical subscriptions, although copies of some politically benign newspapers like the Russian tabloid Argumenty i Fakty were sometimes available in bazaars. President Berdymukhammedov continued firing state media officials—including Minister of Culture and Broadcasting Kakageldy Chariyardurdiyev in January and state television director Annamukhammed Akmedov in October—as he demanded improved media content. In October, authorities also continued their crackdown on the popular use of satellite dishes in Ashgabad in what was justified as a bid to “beautify the city.” The dishes have been one of the only means of accessing information about the outside world, and are used extensively across the country. Twice before, in 2002 and 2007, authorities ordered the removal of satellite dishes, but were forced to back down due to popular resistance and international condemnation.Continued government restrictions and prohibitive costs kept internet access extremely limited in 2008, with an estimated 1.4 percent of the population using the medium. The government controlled the dominant internet service provider, TurkmenTeleCom, and restricted access to critical sites including regional news sources located outside Turkmenistan, opposition websites operated by Turkmens living abroad, and foreign outlets like the British Broadcasting Corporation. In June, the Russian mobile telephone operator MTS began offering internet access to its customers on the condition that they not visit websites that were critical of the government.