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Turkmen President Fails to Fulfil Internet Pledge

Hopes for uncensored web access further threatened as international resource centres close.
By IWPR staff
Internet users in Turkmenistan have long complained that President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov is failing to live up to pledges to allow unrestricted access to the web, made when he took office two years ago.



Now they are also worried that with a number of internationally-funded projects drawing to a close, they will no longer be able to use computer centres previously provided by aid agencies.



In 2007, Berdymuhammedov vowed to remove tight internet controls imposed by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niazov, who had also outlawed foreign newspapers, opera and the circus.



Some 15 internet cafes were opened around the country, and the following year, Berdymuhammedov announced that the internet should be made available in all schools, even kindergartens. All new buildings would be equipped with modern multmedia technology, he pledged.



Government institutions and agencies have set up their own websites, and new buildings do contain provision for internet connections.



But observers say that in reality, the internet is by and large unavailable.



In universities and schools that have installed computers, some with web access, teaching staff either forbid students to use the internet or restrict them to a handful of designated sites.



A staff member at the Turkmen Academy of Sciences explained that when the institution was wired up to the web last year, warnings were issued that if anyone was caught visiting prohibited sites, all access would be cut off.



According to IWPR observers, prices at internet cafes have fallen in the last two years, with the cost of one hour’s surfing now down to 50 US cents.



However, many people are reluctant to go to cyber cafes, where they have to show their passports and put their signature in a special logbook. In addition, any file they want to send has to be saved so that managers have a copy of all attachments sent from private email accounts.



The authorities continue to block websites deemed to be undesirable, including all those featuring the Turkmen opposition-in-exile, and also foreign news sites like RFE/RL, the BBC, and the popular Russian site Centrasia.ru.



“I’ve never been able to open the Centrasia.ru or other sites where I’d be able to read the news about Turkmenistan and neighbouring states,” said a journalist in Ashgabat. “You can check email or open [innocuous] sites, but it is impossible to read about what’s happening in the world. And I’m not talking about opposition sites here – it’s obvious they are banned.”



Curiously, internet connections tend to drop out on public holidays, perhaps because the security service is concerned to keep things calm.



This happened on October 25-28, when Turkmenistan was celebrating its independence day.



“The holiday is now over, but the internet is still down,” said a woman in Ashgabat who is unusual in having a dedicated line for web access at home. “My son called from abroad and said he wanted to Skype with me, but he couldn’t get through. Why are the authorities treating people in this manner?”



A year ago, Berdymuhammedov criticised the monopoly internet provider Turkmentelecom for the poor quality and low speed of connections. His remarks may have given the green light for a second provider to enter the market, the Russian company MTS. This has slightly eased waiting lists for people wishing to install internet at home.



However, according to a Turkmentelecom employee, applications for internet connections are still “reviewed on a case-by-case basis”, meaning that only those applicants considered “safe” and “reliable” by the authorities are given access.



Installation costs about 200 dollars – a price few people can afford. Those with real wealth, and also international organisations operating in Turkmenistan, prefer to use a satellite connection, which costs between 300 and 500 dollars.



The high price of home access means many people use internet centres run by international organisations, offering free access of about an hour a day per person.



The resource centres of the American organisation Counterpart International were very popular for this reason. However, in mid-September, Counterpart announced the successful completion of its current development programme. Local observers say the group’s computer centres have been closed since that time.



Another popular place for activists to use the web was at the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, offices in Ashgabat, which provided access twice a week. Ten more computer centres were opened in the capital and around the country as part of a UNDP-funded education programme. After closing temporarily when the UNDP project ended, they have since reopened but are reportedly charging fees.



Free internet access is currently available at a resource centre supported by the US embassy in Ashgabat.



With hopes of generally-available internet access diminishing, users say this is not enough to meet the demand.



“The centre at the US embassy with its ten computers provides internet access six days a week, but only for 30 minutes per person, and we have to wait in line for a long time,” said one activist.



The Ashgabat office of the IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board), a US non-government group, provides four computers with internet access for visitors. However, there are fears that this centre will be closed if and when IREX projects come to an end.



“We’ve heard that IREX projects in Turkmenistan are going to go on only until December,” said one web user. “What can we do about it?”



When it comes to the resources centres set up by Counterpart, there is some hope that they will continue to operate. A representative of the US organisation in Ashgabat, who requested anonymity, said there were no plans to close the centres and they were currently being restructured.



“The centres are expected to continue providing services, via local partners,” said the representative.



Local internet users still say it is easier and safer for them to use resource centres when they are run by international organisations.



“It is very likely that once computer centres are handed over to them [local organisations], they will try to dictate their own terms to visitors; and that on the orders of the authorities, they’ll monitor what sites we open, block more and more sites and, most importantly, notify the relevant agencies,” said a local journalist.



“Who will want to go to these centres in such a jumpy atmosphere?”



(Names of interviewees withheld out of concern for their security.)

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