No press freedom is allowed and the media are a propaganda tool of President-for-Life Separmurad Nyazov.

Turkmenistan is the most repressive of the former Soviet republics and its media are totally censored. The government has a monopoly of the written and broadcast media and makes great efforts to filter news from the outside world by banning foreign newspapers and blocking Internet news websites.

All newspapers and TV stations display President-for-Life Separmurad Nyazov's photo on their front page or in the corner of the screen. Defaming or insulting the president is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Journalists must choose between self-censorship or exile. Fewer than a dozen were working as freelances in 2003 and therefore in secret.

Nyazov, who calls himself "Turkmenbashi" (Father of All Turkmens), began a fierce anti-Russian campaign in April and set a deadline of 22 June for all those with dual Turkmen-Russian nationality to choose one or the other and to leave the country if they opted to be Russian. The decree, which said Russians would automatically lose all property rights, sparked an exodus.

As the deadline neared, the TV station Altyn Asyr (The Golden Age) showed daily film of Russian or Russian-speaking residents saying how happy they were living under the wise rule of the great "Turkmenbashi." Foreign media, especially Russian, were accused of lying and harming relations between the two countries by reporting that local Russians were being persecuted.

At the end of 2003, three journalists accused of involvement in a supposed attempt to kill Nyazov in November 2002 were being held, in very bad conditions.

Three journalists imprisoned

Journalists Serdar Rakhimov, Batyr Berdyev and Ovezmurad Yazmuradov were arrested and jailed after an alleged assassination attempt on President Nyazov on 25 November 2002 and given 25-year sentences after sham trials with no right of defence. Their lawyers and families have not been allowed to visit them and they have reportedly been tortured and drugged.

Russian-US freelance journalist Leonid Komarovsky, also accused of being involved, was freed in April 2003 and allowed to return to the US. He had been arrested in Ashgabat the day after the alleged attempt and was shown a few days later on government TV confessing his involvement. He said after his release that he had been tortured and drugged to extract a bogus confession and that his conditions of detention were very harsh. He was forced to write a book called "Terrorist act in Ashgabat – The truth about the 25 November 2002 attempt to kill President Nyazov," which told the government's version of the incident.

A journalist exiled

Russian-Turkmen journalist Orazmukhammet Yklymov, a freelance contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty living in Moscow, left Russia in early 2003 for fear of being extradited to Turkmenistan. Several members of his family were arrested, or tried in their absence, for having links with the supposed bid to kill President Nyazov in 2002.

A journalist arrested

Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, correspondent for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Ashgabat, was arrested on 11 September 2003 by state security ministry officials and held for three days, during which he was drugged, roughed up and threatened with 20 years in jail for being a traitor. On 14 November, he was taken by two men, apparently state security agents, to a Ashgabat cemetery, where he was threatened, beaten up and dumped by the roadside. The men said they were fed up with him and were going to get rid of him. Ovezberdiev works on the "Vox Pop" programme and another called "Free Speech," where listeners can sound off about violations of their rights and be put in contact with legal experts and human rights groups outside the country. National security ministry officials have several times demanded an end to the broadcasts.

Harassment and obstruction

The public prosecutor's office issued a list of "traitors" on 22 January 2003, including Russian journalist Arkadi Dubnov, the Moscow-based Central Asia specialist of the Russian daily Vremya Novostey. Unofficial Turkmen government sources told him a few days earlier that his extradition from Russia was being sought for involvement in the supposed November 2002 attempt to kill the "Turkmenbashi." The authorities denied on 14 January that legal action had been started against him, but Dubnov believes he is still under investigation and that the regime will not forgive him for articles criticising President Nyazov.

Nyazov decreed on 3 February that "insulting the fatherland" was high treason punishable by life imprisonment without any chance of parole, amnesty or pardon.

The president gave $5,000 to the editor of every national newspaper on 19 March as a reward for promoting his ideas and policies.

The foreign ministry accused the Russian TV station NTV on 30 May of insulting Turkmenistan, misinforming the public and harming relations with Russia in a broadcast the day before. During his weekly televised cabinet meeting on 16 June, Nyazov accused the Russian media of discrediting the country by reporting his ending of dual Russian-Turkmen nationality. The official daily Neitralnyi Turkmenistan said on 30 June that the Russian media was lying and that people with dual nationality were not being persecuted.

Vyachelsav Mamedov, a human rights and environmental activist, won a lawsuit during the summer against the town government of Turkmenbashi, which he had accused in 2002 of preventing him receiving Russian newspapers he subscribed to, after Nyazov's ban on importing foreign papers.

The president signed an anti-terrorist law on 15 August requiring all media, NGOs and other organisations to report to the government all supposedly terrorist actions or plans.


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