Turkmenistan's president has taken a new interest in television. Saparmurat Niyazov now wants tighter control over Russian broadcasts coming into the country by cable and he has ordered all satellite dishes taken down. It is the latest step in a campaign to limit the Turkmen people's access to any information originating from outside the country.
Prague, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan is taking new steps to limit the amount of information coming into the country from the outside world. President Saparmurat Niyazov said this week that law enforcement agencies need to work toward shutting down what Niyazov said were "illegal" cable hook-ups. Niyazov also said satellite dishes on rooftops in the capital Ashgabat make the city look ugly and ordered they be removed.
The satellite dishes are what is bringing in the "cable" television. Turkmenistan has already taken a number of measures to ensure the only information available to the people is that coming from state-owned media outlets. This latest action only provides more evidence of this trend.
Niyazov's sudden interest in Russian cable television started last month. At a meeting of the cabinet he told law enforcement officials to pay extra attention to cable television: "They told me about cable television. It is operating in Akhal, Mari, and Lebap [oblasts]. People are making money on cable television. People want to get a lot of television channels and many want to have more information [about the world]. This is not forbidden. But local, regional and provincial authorities and law enforcement agencies should in no way allow violations of the law."
What actually appears to be happening is that some people in Turkmenistan have acquired satellite dishes and installed them on the roofs of their apartment buildings. They then connect others in the same building to the satellite dish, and the 13 channels it receives, for a reported monthly fee of 50,000 manat ($2).
Niyazov confirmed this at the Cabinet meeting. "To bring an antenna and agree with residents to connect them to the cable and get money is against the law. If this continues, tomorrow they [the people] will do whatever they want."
While Niyazov may turn to the legal code in ordering the police, Interior Ministry, and Committee for National Security to crack down on these illegal connections, he is also quoted by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency as saying this week that Russian programming received via satellite dishes has a "biased opinion of life in Turkmenistan which misrepresents reality."
Niyazov may have also seen or heard of the report the BBC ran on his country in June. The reporter, while showing the bright gold statues of Niyazov that abound in Ashgabat, noted that the people seemed poor and a lot of money seemed to be spent on glorifying the Turkmen president. One tourist interviewed during the report, which noted there were very few tourists in Ashgabat, said the capital looked like "Stalin Vegas."
But Niyazov dismisses such criticism from foreign media sources as biased against Turkmenistan. Earlier this month he offered his own solution to the people's hunger for information from outside sources. "They [foreign media sources] don't understand what we are doing, how we work, how we live. So I decided to form a service, under the president, for foreign news. We will work with news from outside Turkmenistan. This service will give information to foreign media and receive information from outside the country about what they write about Turkmenistan. The head of this will be Serdar Durdiev and the service will have [a staff of] five people."
As a result, the state newspapers "Turkmenistan" and "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" are now running censored versions of foreign media reports about Turkmenistan. There are reports from the British news agencies Reuters and BBC, Russia's ITAR-TASS, RIA-Novosti, and Interfax news agencies and Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service. The reports used are limited to natural-gas deals, grain harvests, trade, and Niyazov's phone conversations with world leaders. All the reports dealing with grain, gas exports, or trade give figures originally provided by Turkmen authorities.
The report from Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service which appeared in the 19 July edition of "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" provides 30 words from a 90-second report on a cabinet meeting and simply says Niyazov asked the ministers and heads of media not to use his name so often in their reports. The summary failed to mention that the meeting then went on to discuss ways to work the Turkmen president's favored topics into the press without actually mentioning him personally.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan has run Russian programming but with a 24-hour delay, so censors could review the material. The satellite dishes that have sprung up in Turkmenistan have allowed some in urban areas to avoid the censor. Rural areas do not have satellite dishes -- they are simply too expensive for those who work the land for a living.
Turkmenistan has already restricted Internet access by making the Ministry of Communication the only licensed Internet provider. Foreign newspapers had been banned during much of the country's independence, but recently some have become available at the five-star hotels in Ashgabat that cater to foreigners. There are still checks at entry points into the country where written material is scanned and confiscated if it seems potentially damaging to the government. Now access to information via satellite appears to be on the way out also.