Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Leader Wipes “Ugly” TV Dishes From Skyline

Officially, satellite dishes have to go because they are an eyesore, but the real aim may be to cut off people from information from outside.
By IWPR Central Asia
Turkmenistan’s authoritarian leader has demanded the removal of satellite dishes from the roofs and walls of houses and tower blocks in the capital Ashgabat on the grounds that they spoil the city’s appearance.



The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on December 1. By way of compensation, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov said he had ordered the telecommunications ministry to install a “common satellite dish with a huge diameter” in the near future.



“It will not be a big problem to do so,” the Turkmen president said in a statement carried on the national Altyn Asyr television channel.



Satellite TV is one of the main ways for people in this isolated country to obtain information about the outside world.



Cable television boomed in the Nineties, when local firms offered packages of Russian TV channels.



However, in 2003, the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, slapped a ban on the broadcasting of Russian TV without a special license, cable television was cut off and the firms providing the services closed.



Resourceful people surmounted this obstacle by installing their own satellite dishes.



“Many families have installed two, three or four dishes,” one resident in Ashgabat told IWPR. “A satellite dish is an integral part of our daily life, as much as a library is for any cultured person. A person without a dish is seen as weird or hopeless in Turkmen society.”



According to the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative on Human Rights, almost every family in Ashgabat – which has a population of about 500,000 – regularly watches satellite television, thanks to cheap Chinese imported dishes that cost as little as 50 US dollars.



A good-sized dish, a digital tuner and a 20-metre cable together cost just over 100 dollars, depending on the brand. A small antenna carrying only European channels might cost only a fifth of that price. Mounting the dish costs six or seven dollars.



“A family on almost any income can afford a complete set of equipment,” said one source. “Even those who have to count every manat [national currency] are often ready to stint themselves on food to get the money for this spiritual nourishment.”



The plan to dismantle the dishes has therefore provoked dismay, prompting some people to protest to the president via human rights websites based abroad.



It will be “a violation of the right to access to information,” one Ashgabat resident, Adalat Bairiev, said in an open letter to President Berdymuhammedov, published on the human rights and news website Turkmenistan Chronicle, based in Vienna.



“Whatever they say about dishes making cities look ugly, everybody will regard this decision as an act of censorship and a restriction of people’s rights to information,” added Bairiev.



Because of the lack of independent information in a country where only heavily-censored state media operate, the demand for satellite dishes has been high - not only in the capital but also in rural areas.



Satellite dish owners currently enjoy access to the Yamal and Hot Bird satellites carrying Russian, European, Turkish, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Kazak and Uzbek channels. The most popular programmes in Turkmenistan appear to be on the main Russian news, entertainment and sports channels, plus the MTV music channel, CNN and EuroNews.



People also tune in to Voice of America radio and the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty via their satellite dishes.



Ethnic minorities also rely on the dishes for TV in their own languages.



“In the north of Turkmenistan, where ethnic Uzbeks and Kazaks live, the population receives programmes from those countries with the help of antennae,” said an observer from the northern Dashoguz region.



An engineer from the state telecoms agency, Turkmentelecom, said he thought people would accept the ban on dishes if all the TV channels that people like to watch remain available to homes by relay from the planned “giant dish”.



Some experts are sceptical about Berdymuhammedov’s proposal, saying that even if the channels available via the common satellite service are not restricted for political reasons, there is unlikely to be enough of them to serve the needs of a diverse audience.



One former employee of state television pointed out that if the government allowed more choice in the domestic media, “there would be competition and quality and the need for individual satellites would fall off by itself”.



This looks unlikely in the current political climate, where the four state TV channels and handful of government-controlled newspapers continue to serve up a carefully-filtered diet of propaganda.



(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

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