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Qishloq Ovozi

Residents of the Turkmen village of Marchak say that the sound of gunfire to the south in Afghanistan is becoming routine and that military helicopters have been regularly flying overhead as they apparently patrol the border (file photo)

"Bullets are constantly landing in our village and if we had any chance to leave, we would."

That's how a resident described the situation in Marchak, a Turkmen village located just across the border from Afghanistan.

According to Turkmenistan's government, however, the description given to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, is not true.

Fighting in neighboring northwestern Afghanistan has grown significantly worse over the last three years. Attacks and battles in the once relatively peaceful Afghan provinces of (from west to east) Herat, Faryab, Badghis, and Jowzjan are now common and have caused Afghan First Vice President Abdul Dostum Rashid to make several trips to the area to lead operations to reclaim territory lost to the Taliban and its militant allies.

Afghan media has reported on this, including fighting that took place along the border with Turkmenistan, but in Ashgabat officials say there is no security problem along the frontier.

Marchak villagers say otherwise and recently Azatlyk was able to speak with several people from the village (which is not to be confused with the district and village of the same name across the border in Afghanistan).

Given the nature of Turkmenistan's government, which is known to retaliate against its citizens when they speak with foreign media, or provide information that conflicts with the official narrative, the names of these villagers will not be given.

That they spoke out at all shows their desperation.

'Officially' No Problems Exist

Marchak is in the Tagtabazar district of Turkmenistan's Mary Province, and is situated close enough to the Afghan border that stray rounds are landing on their side of the frontier, according to the residents.

They explain that the sounds of gunfire to the south are becoming routine, and that military helicopters are flying over their village as they apparently patrol the border.

"Recently, a girl was hit [in the hand] by a bullet," one villager claimed. "The government paid her hospital costs but police came and asked her to sign a statement and not tell anyone about the incident."

There were about 1,000 people living in Marchak before the recent problems started. Some of those who had relatives living in other parts of Turkmenistan left. But few of the villagers have that option, so most continue to live in Marchak.

On their own initiative, locals built a protective shelter for residents to hide behind when fighting is particularly fierce on the Afghan side of the border.

But it would be difficult for the villagers of Marchak to receive much help from the government because their problems apparently do not officially exist.

Toymyrat Bugaev from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Soltan Achilova displays some of the bruises she suffered during an attack in late October in Ashgabat.

It's never been easy being a journalist in Central Asia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Reporting from Central Asia can lead to dire consequences: assaults, arrests, imprisonment, and, on occasion, even death.

That has been generally true for 25 years, but recently it has become even worse. How much worse was the subject of the latest Majlis podcast organized by RFE/RL (listen below).

Moderating from Washington was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Almaty, German freelance correspondent Edda Schlager joined the discussion. She's been working in Central Asia for more than a decade and had quite a story to tell. Our friend Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch, participated from the United States. I’ve not only been following events with journalists in Central Asia for some years, I’ve had firsthand experience with being on site trying to cover the region, so I had a few things to say also.

The Majlis opened with Schlager recalling her recent experience in Uzbekistan. Schlager was in Uzbekistan at the start of November to cover, as she said, "the atmosphere of the country" ahead of the December 4 presidential election, the first such election since the death of Uzbekistan's only president, Islam Karimov, a couple of months ago.

Schlager was detained on November 10, about one week after she arrived in Uzbekistan.

She said four men came to the hotel where she was staying at around 7 a.m. one morning. "First, I was called by the receptionist to come out because the authorities were there to check my documents," Schlager recalled.

Schlager was taken to a police station, where she spent the entire day, but she pointed out that the people who were holding her treated her kindly. She had telephoned friends before she was taken from the hotel. "To my surprise, I could keep my smartphone," she said, so she was able to maintain contact with people she knew in Uzbekistan and in Germany.

"In the afternoon, the Germany Embassy managed to send me someone, the counsel together with a translator of the embassy, and they got me out," Schlager explained. But she was ordered to leave the country.

As Swerdlow noted, "It’s the first deportation of an international journalist since the interim president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has been installed in power, and it shows that it's business as usual in Uzbekistan for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of the media."

The situation is just as bad, or possibly even worse, in Turkmenistan. In late October, RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova, 67, was taking photographs of the long lines outside state stores, where people were waiting for their chance to purchase basic goods -- sugar, cooking oil, flour, and such.

Police brought her in for questioning. After she left the police station, she was assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants, who took her camera. She was attacked again at a medical facility where she was receiving treatment in November.

Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.
Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.

Another RFE/RL correspondent, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, has been in prison for more than a year after he was found photographing expensive buildings in the Awaza resort area on the Caspian Sea and was subsequently convicted on narcotics charges.

Swerdlow spoke about the situation in Tajikistan where "Tojnews and Nigoh…very important outlets" -- an independent website and newspaper, respectively -- were closed in November. Both cited a lack of "necessary conditions for working" as the reason they were closing. This comes after the Eurasia Net website recently reported about journalists leaving the profession, or the country, due to problems.

Kazakhstan, where the situation has been relatively better than in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, has also seen incidents involving top people at media outlets. Bigeldy Gabdullin, the chief editor of the newspaper Central Asia Monitor and also the publisher of the Radiotochka.kz website, was detained in November on suspicion of extortion.

Kazakhstan's anticorruption agency said Gabdullin published "negative material, which defamed the business reputation" of certain individuals, then demanded money to cease publishing such articles.

According to the anticorruption agency, these individuals arranged for Gabdullin to receive state funding for Central Asia Monitor and Radiotochka.kz. Schlager said, "In Kazakhstan, as in other countries, you have the practice that the government is paying media for covering stories, obviously in a positive way, and in connection with this practice he was arrested because he was accused of corruption."

Gabdullin has not commented publicly yet on these charges.

But his case comes after Seitkazy Mataev, the president of Kazakhstan's Union of Journalists and also the owner and founder of the National Press Club and the KazTAG news agency, and his son Aset, who is general director at KazTAG, were convicted on October 3 of fraud and tax evasion. Mataev was sentenced to six years in prison, his son to five years, and they were fined more than $1.5 million, including seizure of their personal property.

Seitkazy has denied the charges against him and his son. Kazakh political analyst and opposition figure Amirzhan Kosanov described the legal process against the Mataevs as "a demonstration that [the authorities] wanted to give to free journalism, to show, with the Mataevs as an example, that they can deal with anybody, even a person of such a high caliber, who was [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev’s first press secretary and a person who was strongly loyal to the president and that was never in the opposition."

And even in Kyrgyzstan, where there has always been an independent media -- albeit at times an embattled independent media -- there was a warning recently.

In early November, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev warned the media about publishing "misleading" information.

The word "misleading," when spoken by top officials in Central Asia, has as often as not meant information that runs contrary to the government's narrative. So it is a red-flag word.

Kyrgyzstan is about to conduct a national referendum on controversial amendments to the country's constitution, amendments that Atambaev has supported. Kyrgyzstan will also conduct a presidential election next year, to choose Atambaev's successor.

The Majlis podcast discussed these issues and others in great detail, plus Schlager gave a much fuller description of her recent trip to -- and deportation from -- Uzbekistan.

Majlis Podcast: The Cost Of Reporting From Central Asia
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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Cross-Border Tensions In Central Asia
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