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Turkmenistan: Last Freely Available Outlet To Outside News Shuts Down

Turkmenistan on 11 July halted broadcasts of Russia's Mayak radio station -- the last Russian news outlet to reach the Central Asian country. For all practical purposes, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has now cut off his citizens from the outside world. Turkmen without access to a satellite dish or shortwave radio are now living in a total information vacuum. Officially, Ashgabat says the Mayak shutdown was prompted by technical reasons, but Russia seems unconvinced and has demanded an official explanation.

Prague, 13 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Radio Mayak's call signal is intimately familiar to anyone who remembers the former Soviet Union. The radio began its 24-hour-a-day broadcasts of news and music in 1964 to all corners of the USSR and remains a staple of many households across the region to this day.

The Soviet Union may have crumbled, but Radio Mayak -- the "beacon" from Moscow -- retains its listenership.

Although there are no precise ratings in Turkmenistan, Radio Mayak was believed to be the country's most-popular station -- until 11 July, when Ashgabat cut off its signal without warning.

Radio Mayak Chairman Andrei Bystritskii spoke to RFE/RL from Moscow.

"The Interfax agency -- I got this in a telegram I received yesterday -- reported that Mayak was the most popular radio station in Turkmenistan," Bystritskii said. "But you understand that there are no audience surveys, so there are no precise figures. It is hard to say in general how many people listen to us. Occasional surveys show that across the region, about 40 percent of the population knows the Mayak radio station, but how often or how regularly they listen to us -- that we don't precisely know."

The Turkmen authorities explained their move in the state-controlled press by saying technical maintenance was responsible for Mayak's disappearance from the airwaves. The Turkmen Communications Ministry said the transmitting equipment for Mayak -- in use since 1964 -- is in need of repair, which could take as long as one year, if money can be found in Turkmenistan's state budget.

But Bystritskii countered that if maintenance were really the issue, local Turkmen stations would not have been able to take over Mayak's frequency on a Sunday, as they did.

The Russian Embassy in Ashgabat, too, is suspicious of the motives behind the Mayak shutdown in Turkmenistan and addressed a note to the government, demanding an official explanation.

At issue are not only the estimated 300,000 ethnic Russians living in Turkmenistan -- many of whom listened to Mayak -- but the fact that most of the country's 5 million citizens are now cut off from all outside sources of information, with the exception of a minority who own satellite dishes or shortwave radio sets.

In 1998, the Turkmen authorities pulled the plug on Russian television broadcasts provided by ORT television, and in 2002, all foreign newspaper and magazine subscriptions were halted. Mayak provided Turkmen with their last source of easily accessible outside news.

To a certain degree, like all radio stations broadcasting abroad, Mayak is used to occasional political difficulties. Bystritskii said the station intends to continue trying to serve its loyal "foreign" audience.

"The fact is that this radio station does still garner a certain amount of attention," Bystritskii said. "I am talking about Belarus, where we have periodic difficulties with the Belarusian leadership -- they turn us on and off -- in eastern Ukraine, in northern Kazakhstan. We have our audience everywhere. People are used to our radio station, and they listen to us."

The days are gone when most everyone across the former Soviet Union would listen to Mayak on a daily basis, thanks to cable-radio receivers installed in every apartment. Bystritskii said most Mayak listeners tune in to its programs through normal radio sets, meaning the station depends on rebroadcasting agreements with local operators across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to reach most of its listeners.

"Even in Russia, this system is gradually falling out of use, and the number of cable-radio sets is rapidly declining, so we cannot count on this system for the future," Bystritskii said. "This same phenomenon holds true -- to a lesser degree -- for the CIS countries and in Central Asia. So the main vehicle for our programs are radio frequencies."

Those frequencies -- at least in Turkmenistan -- are filled this week with government-sponsored bulletins of good news about a record grain harvest, bulging state coffers, and President Niyazov's latest project -- building an ice palace in the desert outside the capital, Ashgabat.

(Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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