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Obedient Turkmen Media

The Turkmen media are little more than the president's mouthpiece
By Nazik Ataeva

The Turkmen constitution bestows many freedoms on its media, but, in reality, the state's monopoly over the press ensures it toes the government line.


Not that the authorities even try to hide the fact they pull the strings. President Saparmurat Niyazov is the founder, benefactor and proprietor of all state and regional publications. In fact, press legislation is explicit in saying that the president is responsible for directing the activities of his editorial staff.


Since the media's role is to act as official mouthpiece, the country's news sources - which aside from the state news agency comprise ten Turkmen language publications and one Russian - differ in name and format alone.


The greater part of these papers are given over to fawning paeans to the president - the man who calls himself Turkmenbashi, father of the Turkmen. Papers extol his political vision and run screeds of Soviet-style fare about successful harvests, joys of the working man, long, saccharine descriptions of folk holidays and evocations of the country's glorious past.


Alongside these run lengthy extracts from his speeches and selections of his adages and thoughts. Since the president's birthday in February, the papers have been spoilt for choice. That was the day the first volume of Ruhnama, Niyazov's spiritual views, was published. One paper referred to it as "a book, which for the Turkmen people, is holy like the miraculous Qur'an", and its author as "having the wisdom of a prophet".


The daily Neutral Turkmenistan has adopted one of his enlightened pronouncements and run it daily on its pages, "Turkmenistan, beloved Motherland, my native land. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you. If I cause you even the tiniest evil, may I lose my hand. If I insult you in the smallest way may my tongue go numb. In my hour of treason to my motherland and to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, may my breathing cease."


As for the rest of the paper, the content manages blanket positive coverage. Topics which might possibly compromise the authorities or cast the country in a bad light are treated with extreme care. AIDS and drug-addiction, for example, will only appear in the context of prevention.


Reporting the activities of state institutions is a mere formality, with editors just reprinting information supplied by the president's own press office.


It's much the same sort of story at Turkmenistan's one television and two radio stations. Their output might have been lifted from the local papers. Their concept of news is also baffling, as precious little attention is focused on the present, much less the future. Far safer to hark back to the accepted past 'glories'.


There is more information to be gleaned from the Russian newspapers for those who hanker after something a little more substantial. But few can afford them, and besides, only a handful are distributed in the country.


Viewers can also opt to switch to the one Russian television channel available, ORT. But they will find just five hours a day of selected material. Not just at the moment though, the channel's been suspended.


So, if traditional media don't measure up, there's always the internet. But, in Turkmenistan, censorship has caught up with new technology. All internet companies were shut down in 2000 leaving the state-run Turkmentelecom the sole provider. In any case, internet availability is sparse and overly expensive for the majority of the population.


The censor's grip is also to be felt among journalists' organizations, which either work in the service of the state or don't work at all. The Turkmen Union of Journalists might have been created for the "protection of their interests against state and public organizations, founders and publishers of media," as its 1992 charter sets out, but this has about as little bearing on reality.


The Union of Women Journalists, UWJ, set up by the editorial staff of the paper Neutral Turkmenistan and headed by editor-in-chief Gozel Nuralieva and her deputy Tatiana Glebova, is similarly ineffective.


According to its books, all women journalists are members of the organization though many probably aren't even aware of the fact. Neither does the organization actually do anything. Its raison d'etre is simply to satisfy international grant givers.


Very strict parameters are drawn as to what is deemed worthwhile reporting and what is out-of-bounds. Correspondents find themselves refused the right to any kind of foreign-held event, whether it be an embassy party or company press conference.


Acceptance of a personal invitation without approval from the papers' management is construed as "unsanctioned contact", which could jeopardise a journalist's career.


Travelling abroad falls into yet another category, with publishers and editors generally against their employees attending seminars, training programmes or summer schools.


On top of this, correspondents requesting permission to travel will immediately find themselves under the scrutiny of the Committee for National Security, CNS, better known by its former acronym, KGB, which will either exert pressure on them not to go or simply deny them a visa.


Should a journalist make it past these hurdles, he or she will return to face intimidation at work or even dismissal. As happened to a group of journalists who visited a journalist training institute in Sweden last year. On their return, they not only lost their jobs but had to face hours of gruelling questioning by CNS agents.


Nazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan


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