On March 1, the government website turkmenistan.gov.tm reported that journalists at a seminar held in the capital Ashgabat discussed a professional code of ethics for writing about healthcare and education. The event was arranged jointly by the Turkmen health ministry and the United States aid agency USAID.
The news report made open reference to international principles of journalism according to which reporters are supposed to provide a accurate, reliable and balanced account of events.
Journalists in Turkmenistan were pleased that the training workshop took place at all, as such events are few and far between.
“They should seminars like this more often, as we’re don’t have much information about [journalistic] skills,” said one local reporter.
Media experts say it is little wonder the country’s journalists lack skills as the university system has not offered courses in journalism in the last 17 years, while the older generation came through the Soviet system when the principle purpose of journalism was to purvey propaganda.
The authorities in Turkmenistan monitor and restrict travel, so it is hard for journalists to go abroad to attend training events and seminars. If they do, they may be harassed on their return for entering into contact with foreign organisations.
Some experts argue that training is never going to be enough as long as current environment persists, with no independent media, and strict censorship in the state sector. All subject-matter for TV, radio and the press has to be approved in advance by senior management.
“A journalist might have a lot of ideas, but who’s going to allow him to work them up into stories?” asked a media analyst in Ashgabat. “There’s always a risk that the journalist or film crew – the cameraman or director – will get into trouble if they take it upon themselves to provide an objective picture of reality.”
The media expert recalled one recent case where state television showed a report on the opening of a new opened hospital in the town of Esenguly in western Turkmenistan. The footage included pictures of syringes being boiled in pots.
“Everyone got into big trouble after those pictures were shown,” said the analyst. “However, they subsequently sent the hospital a consignment of disposable syringes.”
A journalist who works for a state-owned newspaper said this case proved how powerful the truth could be. However, he added, the freedom to tell the truth was sadly lacking in Turkmenistan.
“If we don’t have that [freedom], why study international standards and ethical principles?” he asked. “The real problems will never be broadcast anyway.”
The Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders rated Turkmenistan among the world’s worst countries when it comes to press freedom, while according to the International Press Institute, journalists are under severe pressure in this country.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)