In closed societies like Turkmenistan, the media struggles to be seen and heard, and evidence of impact is scarce. This is the intent of the Turkmen government, whose record on press freedom, according to Freedom House, consistently ranks among the “worst of the worst” in the world. And yet despite restrictions, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service is managing to perform many of the functions that media do in far freer societies, and citizens are benefiting.
A few statistics say it all: whereas four years ago the Service averaged a paltry 18,000 monthly visits to its website, this November it logged 861,500 visits, with over 1.3 million pages viewed. The website is permanently blocked inside the country, and yet over 75 percent of visits originated inside Turkmenistan, via proxy servers. Views on the Service’s YouTube channel currently total nearly 100,000 a month, and the Service counts 127,500 fans on its Facebook page. Four years ago, the Service produced no video content at all.
Driving the statistics is content that is relevant to local audiences, responsive to their needs, and interactive. Radio Azatlyk, as the Turkmen Service is known locally, has reported on local development issues, power shortages and unpaved roads, and bread-and-butter issues that affect people’s daily lives. As a result of its reporting, authorities recently were pressed to reverse plans to demolish a village, provide housing to people who have lost their homes, and improve local drinking water supplies. Radio Azatlyk also provides unique, first-hand coverage of developments along Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan, including the activities of the Taliban and other extremist groups.
The changes in the Turkmen Service are the result of a programming strategy launched by Director Muahmmad Tahir in 2011. Then a “dissident outlet” that shied away from local news, says Tahir, Radio Azatlyk is now seen as a public service broadcaster with a proven record of delivering results. “People have started knocking on the door of our correspondents to tell their stories and give interviews.” In a dramatic reversal from earlier days, he says, “ordinary citizens have even started talking in front of our camera.”
Thanks to training, new tools, and lots of innovation, the Service provides a steady repertoire of video, photographs, and infographics. It makes extensive use of user-generated content, and engages with its audiences directly, both online and on the air.
Recognizing that his correspondents’ access inside the country is unique, Tahir last year decided to complement his Turkmen-language content with English-language discussions on regional issues for an international audience. The coverage of border issues, in particular, is highly regarded and has won fans among analysts of Central Asia abroad. Citing the programs, Dr. Luca Anceschi, Director of the University of Glasgow’s Central Asian Studies Center, has called Radio Azatlyk “a most reliable and easily accessible source” for developments in the region …that is “shaping how the next generation is seeing Central Asia.”
Radio Azatlyk’s successes have come at a high price for the local correspondents who have dared to defy the authorities to gather and report the news. Over the last year they, and in many cases their family members, have been the targets of an intimidation campaign aimed at silencing them.
The systematic nature of the campaign has prompted statements of concern from numerous media advocacy groups and foreign governments, including the United States.
Of nine reporters, six have resigned in the last 18 months. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a photo-journalist from the country’s western Balkan region, is currently serving a three-year prison sentence on narcotics charges that are widely believed to have been fabricated in retaliation for his reporting.
In addition to attacking personnel, authorities have also sought to undermine Radio Azatlyk’s means of distribution, dismantling private satellite antennas and replacing them with state owned satellites that do not broadcast Radio Azatlyk programs. Orchestrated letter campaigns have propagated falsehoods to discredit the Turkmen Service and members of its staff.