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Turkmenistan: In Dramatic Shift, Ashgabat Allows Readers To Post Web Comments --> An Internet cafe in Ashgabat (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) October 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen government's official website recently added a new feature that allows readers to post comments to articles. The new feature appears to be a major change in a country where the government strictly controls all media and public dissent is not allowed.

The website, Altyn Asyr (The Golden Age), which was launched about two years ago in Russian, features articles about the national and local governments and the meetings and foreign trips made by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomed the development.

"At first, it's a great surprise, and we are pretty much astonished by this news because there had been such pressure on information in Turkmenistan and especially on the Internet, that it's a very good sign," Elsa Vidal, the head of RSF's Eurasia Desk, told RFE/RL. "But nevertheless, it is too early to say whether this sign will lead to a bigger liberalization of information in Turkmenistan. We very deeply hope that it will and that President Berdymukhammedov will commence his reform of the country."

The website recently began offering news in Turkmen and English, as well. The move to allow comments to be posted coincides with a trip to Turkmenistan by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

In February, shortly after Berdymukhammedov was inaugurated, the first two Internet cafes in Turkmenistan were opened in the capital, Ashgabat. But Vidal says those are not as free as they are in most other countries. She says you must register your identity and that there are filters on the web browsers that prevents many websites from being accessed by the user.

"These are, nevertheless, big changes [with the Internet] compared with [President Saparmurat] Niyazov's era," she says.

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