The World’s Worst Country for Journalists
Turkmenistan is so repressive it is even worse than in Soviet times, says editor Ruslan Myatiev.
Last month the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan overtook North Korea to become most repressive media environment in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index. The media watchdog described the Central Asian nation as a news “black hole” where all media is controlled by the government and where the few independent journalists working for foreign-based news sites have been harassed, arrested, and tortured. Just 15 percent of the country can get online, and even then the version of the internet they have access to is highly censored.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan remained isolated from the rest of the world under the brutal and eccentric rule of former President Saparmurat Niyazov. He renamed the months of the year after his family members, cracked down on dissent, and installed a statue of himself that rotates to always face the sun. Little has changed since current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow came to power in 2006 following Niyazov’s death. While North Korea has allowed foreign journalists to enter the country, Turkmenistan remains closed.
Foreign Policy spoke with Ruslan Myatiev, the founder and editor of Alternative Turkmenistan News, about the lengths he goes to to protect his reporters and sources and the Western tech companies that are providing online surveillance training to Turkmenistan’s formidable security services. Myatiev runs the site from the Netherlands, where he claimed asylum in 2010.
Foreign Policy: So what’s the media landscape like right now in Turkmenistan?
Ruslan Myatiev: There is no media landscape in Turkmenistan, let’s put it that way. There is a bunch of state TV channels, newspapers, and radio stations, and they all convey the official line. The role of the media is to tell the news, but [in Turkmenistan] we have cases where floods have taken over entire cities and nobody reports about it. We have accidents. We have murders. We have corrupt officials that are put in jail for corruption, and nobody reports about it. If you take any Turkmen newspaper, they think the most interesting story is the president visiting a horse race or playing with puppies.
It’s propaganda. It’s the worst example of state propaganda. They are making him virtually a god. The saddest thing is that the Turkmen society has lived through this for many decades already. Entire generations have grown up with this. They don’t know that a state can operate otherwise. They don’t know that the media can have a different approach.
I’m hoping that a website like mine and others will turn these things around. We’re trying to get to the youth to tell them, “Look, guys, there is a different vision, there is a different point of view.” I don’t know how successful we are, because all of these websites that are focused on Turkmenistan are blocked in Turkmenistan. All social media sites are blocked in Turkmenistan. You can’t access Instagram. You can’t access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Even Russian language platforms like VKontakte or Odnoklassniki are all blocked.
There is only one messenger that works without any filters. It’s called Imo. I never interact with my sources, readers, or reporters through this messenger because it’s—if it works in Turkmenistan, for God’s sake, it’s monitored.
— What kind of lengths do you go to to protect your reporters and your sources?
— The harsh circumstances of Turkmenistan push us to develop very sophisticated ways of communication, ways of collecting information. We cannot really break the news. … The entire country, the entire [capital] city of Ashgabat is filled with surveillance cameras. And we cannot now post a photo in an article of something that happened yesterday, or today, or even a week ago. Because the security services look at the photo, identify the place where it was taken, look for surveillance cameras in that area, and then they go and play back the footage to try to identify who took that photo.
And they do find them. They do punish them. The best-case scenario is that the reporters get a warning. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst case scenario is Gaspar Matalaev’s case. He was charged with fraud and an alleged bribery attempt, while in fact he was monitoring the use of forced labor during the cotton harvest. People get beaten. [The reporter Gaspar Matalaev was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2016 on charges widely thought to be politically motivated.]
Our policy is that safety is most important. No sensation, no breaking news is worth somebody’s freedom, or even their life. We use secure communication channels. Reporters inside the country find very sophisticated ways to send information. They use VPNs [virtual private networks], they use proxy servers to bypass filters. There’s only one internet provider in Turkmenistan. Sometimes we even send people to other countries to send us information if it’s too sensitive. It’s expensive for us, of course, but for the safety of those people, we do send them even to neighboring countries so that they can freely send it. They can freely send it from Iran, from Uzbekistan. Can you imagine?
— How effective are the security services at monitoring the internet?
— They are quite effective. I know that they are well equipped. They are well trained. Yet, thank god, there are still platforms that are not so easily accessible to them. If something is blocked in Turkmenistan, it’s a sign that it’s not accessible to them [the security services].
— How many reporters do you have?
— I have about four dedicated reporters who really travel all across Turkmenistan on assignment. We talk regularly. We talk about what’s feasible, because of course we can aim very high, but sometimes, often, it’s not feasible to do certain things. These are dedicated people.
I have about maybe 10 to 15 other people who regularly contribute. For instance, a guy who sees an accident on a road and quickly sends me a message about it.
— How do people get around the block on your website in Turkmenistan?
— They use VPNs to bypass the filters. Even VPNs get blocked. They have to find a working VPN, and one of the most popular questions on social media among the Turkmens is, “Hey, do you have a working VPN?”
— When you say the security services are well trained, who’s training them?
— A few years ago, one of my good contacts shared quite sensitive information with me that there were two [Turkmen] police officers traveling to Germany for training. They were trained on the surveillance system, how to manage all those video cameras around the city. I don’t know who trains the Ministry of National Security. They use Israeli-, Italian-, and German-made technology. It could be somebody invited from the outside that comes to Turkmenistan, because they [Ministry of National Security employees] cannot leave the country. So I assume that once they sign a contract with them, this contract also includes training. So these folks come over to Turkmenistan and train them how to bust certain citizens.
— How does that make you feel that people from these democracies are coming to train Turkmen security services on how to monitor people?
— It feels bad, of course. For them, probably, business is business and it doesn’t really matter where your money comes from. But I think these tech companies, tech firms should have at least some basic ethical rules or guidelines that would say, “Hey, we don’t supply our technology, our equipment, to countries where human rights, where even basic human rights, are not respected.”
— How do you think today’s Turkmenistan compares with what life was like under the Soviet Union in terms of freedom?
— Soviet Turkmenistan was much, much more free than now. There was decent education in the Soviet times and in the early ages of Turkmenistan’s independence. … We had excellent teachers, and it all started to disappear in around 2000, 2001, when the Ruhnama came, the book of the first president, the spiritual guide of all Turkmens. The book was everywhere. Even if you wanted to get your driver’s license, you had to take a test on the book. This is how you kill your people. Someone once said, “If you want to kill a nation, you start with education.” If you remove education, if you kill education, you kill your society.
— What about the media? Your parents were both journalists. How do they compare working as journalists in the Soviet Union to post-Soviet Turkmenistan?
— The years of perestroika, when [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power, from I would say 1985 until about 1993, it was more or less free. You could criticize a police department for, I don’t know, for mishandling somebody. And there would be a reaction to that article. Higher ones, higher-ups, would react.
Now there is absolutely no such opportunity. Firstly, there is no criticism, but then also there is no reaction.
Sometimes there is a reaction to what we write, foreign media which is based outside of the country. One of my areas of coverage is the state of Turkmen prisons. The food supply, medical supply, cases of tortures. I’ve been covering this for many years, and I see improvement. So there is more responsibility, accountability. There is a reaction, and I’m glad it’s moving that way. But it’s so slow
— Do you think that is because of the reports coming out on the prisons?
— Absolutely it’s because of that. Because the prisons issue is often raised by the likes of the United Nations, different human rights reports by the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch. They keep raising this issue. Prisons, prisons. Tortures, tortures. And perhaps the government wants to improve their record on that, and they do react. And one of the sources of information is my website.
— Is the government responsive to outside pressure from international institutions?
— The Turkmen government does not understand words. It understands action. In the case of the Turkmen cotton and textiles, when a bunch of foreign apparel brands decided to ban Turkmen cotton and textiles from their supply chains, when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency decided to withhold release order [preventing goods from entering the United States if the use of slave labor is suspected] , it’s only then the government realized that, “Okay, this is getting serious, we’ve got to do something about it.”
— So even in a country that Reporters Without Borders says has the worst media freedom in the world, you’re still able to make a little bit of progress?
— Yes. There is also a reaction on very basic stuff. In 2014, my website ran a huge story on the conditions of a beach, on a Caspian shore, in the city of Hazar. It was all dirty with plastic bags, dirty vodka bottles, beer bottles. You name it. Everywhere. And we wrote about it with several dozens of photos. We said, “Look, nobody cares.” Within a few months, it was completely cleaned up. Nobody cared about it for decades. Nobody. That’s one example.
Just recently we wrote about the conditions in one of the local bazaars in one of the cities in Turkmenistan that, every spring or fall, when it rains, it’s all muddy. People walk in mud to do grocery shopping and people who were selling stuff would also be sitting in mud. We ran one picture and within a few weeks, they laid tiles [over the ground]. My reporter took the same photo from the same angle, and we put the two together to compare. Beautiful picture. So there is a reaction. We’re happy. If it helps the locals, I am so happy if there is such a reaction. Okay, so it’s not something global, but at least if one small community enjoyed it, if they saw some positive development, why not?