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Turkmen TV Turn Off

Turkmens are fed up with state television's obsession with President Niyazov
By Konstantin Arzybov

"Where can I get my hands on $150 dollars to buy a satellite dish?" is an increasingly familiar refrain on the streets of Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat. Disgusted with the poor state of local TV, many Turkmens - even non-Russian speakers - are turning to Russian language channels.


The state of broadcasting in Turkmenistan is a symptom of a political system that has become eerily reminiscent of Soviet days. Head of state Saparmurat Niyazov was voted president for life in 1999, and regularly wins 99.5 per cent of votes. And increasingly, Turkmen authorities' are attempting to control people's access to information, just like in Soviet times.


The state broadcasting company, TMT, has a total monopoly on television and radio broadcasting. Terrestial TV is dominated by its two channels - TMT-1 and TMT-2 - with a combined 28 hours of broadcasting a day. Two foreign channels - Russian ORT and Eurasian Turkish state television - also broadcast, but for only a few hours a day.


TMT's own output now amounts to little more than a fawning adjunct to the president's personality cult. Every presidential activity - a cabinet meeting, a foreign visit - is transmitted at length in news bulletins with no regard for scheduled programming. Twenty-minute bulletins often end up being four hours long, and it's not unusual for a 10pm film to start at 1am.


No wonder Turkmens have thought up a new joke: Two men are chatting. One says: "I turn on the TV - and there's Niyazov. I turn on the radio and it's Niyazov again. I'm afraid to turn the iron on, because he'll come on there too."


The quality of journalists working in television has also decreased. "I'm ashamed that my former colleagues have completely ruined the concept of television broadcasting," says Aman K, a former television employee who prefers to remain anonymous.


"Even in the most entrenched and stagnant years of the Soviet era there was nothing this bad in terms of journalism and technical professionalism," he continues. "We used totally different cameras, we edited everything on the technology used in socialist countries, but we still made programs that people wanted to watch."


Somewhat surprisingly, the president is rumoured to be unhappy with this state of affairs, and has reportedly criticised the heavy-handed style of state TV. But either these are simply rumours, or journalists have chosen to ignore his criticisms. Either way, there has been no discernible effect on programming.


Nor is the problem only with state TV. Turkmen authorities routinely censor what foreign language programming is available. In 1988, ORT was cut from 18 hours broadcast a day to five. A special commission censors all its programmes, targeting nudity and anything with a political content. Anything judged to be negative to Turkmenistan - and this is interpreted very widely - is cut.


"We don't need all those nudes, all that blood," the president commented in 1998. The public, he added, needs to be protected from "unwanted images." After state censors have finished with ORT broadcasts all that's left are anodyne quiz shows or endless television documentaries, and nothing else.


Unsurprisingly, a satellite dish has become the latest must-have accessory. Apartment buildings festooned with dishes are a common sight in the streets of Ashgabat.


Most dishes pick up Russian channels like TV-6 or RTR, as well as the satellite version of OTR. Only richer families - who have a yard in which to rotate their dish - can pick up broadcasts from outside Russia.


Paradoxically, people in rural, non-Russian speaking regions can often pick up Russian channels without a dish. Yet in towns with big Russian or Russian-speaking populations, a satellite dish is an impossible purchase for the average family.


So far, money is the only limitation to would-be satellite owners, but every so often, rumours circulate that Niyazov wants to ban the dishes.


In a country where access to impartial information is severely restricted, the cheapest way to get objective information is to subscribe to foreign periodicals. Theoretically, this is perfectly legal here, but the authorities have done their best to make the procedure to get subscriptions almost impossible.


Technically, you can get a subscription by filling in special forms available in state post offices. But in practice, forms are deliberately handed out only 15 minutes before closing time, and must be completed before the beginning of the next working day, giving people hardly any time to fill them out.


Subscriptions must also be paid for in hard currency (dollars or Russian roubles) which are almost impossible to come by for the average Turkmen citizen.


In short, Turkmen authorities are showing a worrying tendency to block the flow of information, using strict state controls. And the dire financial situation of most Turkmens is only helping the government's efforts.


For now, a trickle of information does get through. But there's every chance that Niyazov is angling to stop that, too.


Konstantin Arzybov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan


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