In one of the world’s most closed societies people are starting to talk, and they are contacting RFE/RL’s Turkmen service to hear them.
“Come and film every corner of my home. Let’s show our country’s leaders what conditions ordinary people live in,” Gulnara Najimova, a 35-year-old housewife told a correspondent from RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, or Radio Azatlyk, as it is known locally.
In an incident last month, a group of residents showed up at the home of a Radio Azatlyk correspondent with the news that local authorities in Turkmenistan’s northeastern Lebap province planned to build a highway through the middle of their village. After Azatlyk reported the story, local officials visited the village to assure residents that the construction would not affect their homes.
Such public appeals to an unsanctioned media outlet would have been unheard of one year ago, or five or 20, in a country that is all but permanently included in Freedom House’s annual list of the “Worst of the Worst”
human rights abusers, and ranked at the bottom of almost every other major survey of fundamental freedoms in the world. That the authorities responded affirmatively to the reports and didn’t punish the petitioners is additional evidence of a shift.
Turkmenistan’s media is entirely state-controlled. RFE/RL has neither a bureau nor accredited journalists there, and its correspondents work on the assumption that they are under constant government surveillance and may be summoned for questioning about their contacts and their reports. Radio Azatlyk's website, azathabar.com
, is permanently blocked, requiring visitors to use proxy servers to access it. Reporters and bloggers who have defied the regime’s information blockade have been imprisoned
; residents who have criticized local authorities have been forcibly confined to psychiatric facilities
; and fear and intimidation are common elements of public life.
But, according to Muhammad Tahir, the Turkmen service’s director, people have begun to bring their grievances
and concerns to Radio Azatlyk.
"I've been working for Azatlyk for 11 years, and I remember how difficult it was for us to get any comment from anyone in Turkmenistan because people were afraid," he said. “It's a big change having people approach us."
WATCH: Turkmens Speak Out To RFE/RL
Indeed, statistics tell part of the story of Radio Azatlyk’s emergence as a meeting place for its audience to exchange information and report public concerns.
Despite being inaccessible in Turkmenistan, Azatlyk’s Facebook page is now nearing 20,000 fans, making it the biggest Facebook page in the Turkmen language. Two years ago, its fans numbered 217. The number spiked in recent months in response to a series of reports about property rights and policing on the country’s border with Afghanistan (see below). Some of the videos the service posted to its page have been viewed over 40,000 times.
The service’s YouTube channel, also inaccessible without a proxy server, has been watched over 312,000 times since being launched in August 2013.
Visits to Azatlyk’s webpage have increased 500 percent in the last year, now averaging 875 unique visits per day. Its twitter account, @azathabar, has grown to 420 followers from 340 in March.
Tahir believes the change is at least partly the result of a shift in Azatlyk’s reporting strategy away from abstract political debates toward coverage of tangible issues – including roads, property disputes, electricity shortages, and bribes - that affect citizens’ everyday lives.
A series of reports on the borderlands between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan
is an example. Radio Azatlyk recently sent a reporter to Qarqeen, an ethnic Turkmen district over the border in Afghanistan in Jowzjan Province, to investigate possible Taliban activity in advance of the withdrawal of NATO troops from the region at the end of 2014. Apart from the intended report, the correspondent found another local story: over the past several decades, the Amu Darya River has shifted several kilometres, pushing Turkmenistan’s southern boundary further into Afghanistan, washing away several villages while creating islands out of others, and submerging previously fertile grazing lands beneath water and sand.
Ghulam Rasool, a Qarqeen resident, explained to RFE/RL the Amu Darya’s threats to the area’s way of life.
“Last year, I worked on this river bank. The place I am standing now is called the Khan Depe cemetery. It is where we bury our dead," he said. "When I was working here last year, I would come early in the morning, and I saw dead bodies floating away down the river. We would retrieve them and rebury them. The river doesn’t stop here and using sand bags is not going to stop it either. We are asking the Afghan state and the Turkmen government to help remedy the problem.”
Radio Azatlyk reported the story, including information that Turkmen police, border guards and security forces imprisoned and roughed up local residents who were bringing their herds to graze on the islands that once were Afghan farmland.
On March 25, shortly after the reports aired, several ethnic Turkmen elders from northern Afghanistan, including Qarqeen district, were summoned to Kabul to meet with Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, who was visiting the capital. Meredov pledged to help build a barrier along the Amu Darya.
In addition, Baymyrat Goyunly, the governor of Afghanistan’s Jowzjan Province, telephoned Radio Azatlyk to say he had spoken with Turkmen officials and that a team from Turkmenistan would be sent to assess the problem of the south-moving river and start construction of the barrier.
Radio Azatlyk’s Jowzjan correspondent also reported that Turkmenistan’s border forces had granted permission to Afghan Turkmen to graze their livestock on the disputed islands, and had stopped harassing and detaining them.
Radio Azatlyk’s exclusive coverage was cited by numerous national and international media outlets, including for the first time the pro-government website