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

Turkmen Media Welcome Fee Reinstatement

People working in the media in Turkmenistan have welcomed a decision to restore a system of fees abolished a decade ago.

President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov signed an order to reinstate the payments following a March 13 cabinet meeting.

Starting from April 1, journalists and production staff working for TV, radio, the press, and publishing houses will be paid a fee for work they do over and above their basic jobs, adding up to 40 per cent to their normal salary.

Payment of such fees is common practice in former Soviet republics, and was the case in Turkmenistan until the late president Saparmurat Niazov abolished the system towards the end of the Nineties. The only extra income opportunity available since then has been a nominal fee for newspaper articles.

Staff working for the state broadcaster (there is no other) will also get extra pay for working over public holidays.

The cabinet meeting focused on why Turkmen TV and radio produce such poor-quality programmes, and similar problems with live entertainment such as theatres.

“It makes sense to design a merit-based payment system where the best and most talented authors get higher remuneration,” Berdymuhammedov told the assembled ministers.

In addition to full-time staffers, artists and musicians who appear on television and radio will start receiving fees. Niazov abolished these altogether, saying they were an “unnecessary waste of money” since artists should be prepared to work for nothing.

As for journalists, he said their jobs were prestigious in themselves and they should not expect to be paid well.

Since coming to power in 2007, Berdymuhammedov has reversed many of his predecessor’s more erratic rulings, for instance by reinstating opera, theatre and the circus, which had been abolished as “un-Turkmen”.

At present, the average monthly salary for journalists, producers and other staff working in television is 200 US dollars, while radio and newspaper staff get about half that.

They can be fined half their wages for anything deemed to be a misdemeanour, such as presenters having the “wrong kind of parting” in their hair or showing necklines that are too revealing, or participants in TV shows not wearing badges showing the Turkmen flag.

Artists and media workers are naturally enthusiastic about the prospect of earning more.

“Everybody is happy about the cabinet’s decision,” said a commentator in the capital Ashgabat. “They [media workers] have been criticised for the poor quality of their work, but hopefully this will improve.”

A member of staff at Turkmen television’s fourth channel added, “We haven’t been paid fees for about 15 years now, so this is very gratifying and inspiring.”

Other commentators were less upbeat, saying financial incentives alone would not sort out the numerous technical failings of the Turkmen media.

A journalist from Miras, a state TV channel whose output consists largely of rebroadcasts of programmes from Russia, points to the discrepancy between official calls from more locally-produced material, and station managers’ desire simply to have a larger volume of output. In practice, he said, no one cares about programme quality, and the station’s filming and editing is sloppy.

“We used to produced a one-hour programme every month, but now we do one a week, and sometimes we have other assignments as well,” said the journalist. “We are always disastrously far behind. So when conditions are like that, what is the quality going to be like?”

Some experts say the media needs to modernise, decide how much of their own material to generate and how much to buy in from elsewhere, and start competing for audience share.

None of this will happen without the key element that is currently missing in Turkmenistan – media freedom.

“We often get criticised because all five Turkmen TV channels show the same kind of thing – song and dance performances,” said an employee of Altyn Asyr television. “But what else can we do? That’s what our management likes.”

A print journalist from eastern Turkmenistan said change would be incremental, with the new fees acting as incentives for better output.

(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.)

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