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Turkmenistan: RFE/RL Journalists Still Missing Following Arrests

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service staff meeting in Prague to discuss the arrested correspondents (RFE/RL) The whereabouts of two RFE/RL correspondents remain unclear following their arrests by authorities in Turkmenistan and a subsequent lack of any contact with the men. The Turkmen government has been widely criticized for its failure to respect freedom of speech and human rights. The lack of an independent media in the country leaves those who try to report developments in a way that differs from the official version of events particularly vulnerable. So the absence of any news since police led the RFE/RL correspondents away earlier this week has journalists' rights groups concerned.

PRAGUE, March 10, 2006 -- Family and colleagues of RFE/RL correspondents Meret Khommadov and Yumadurdy Ovezov have been unable to contact them since their arrests.

"At least two [RFE/RL correspondents] are arrested," said Aleksandr Narodetsky, director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It happened March 7, in the morning. They were arrested and taken to the local police, and then after several hours they were taken somewhere else. Their relatives, they tried to get an answer from local about the whereabouts of these two people and they didn't get any answer from [police]."

Hostile Environment

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has a history of hostility to independent media. Nearly 15 years after the country gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmen authorities have eradicated nearly all nonstate media.

Farid Tukhbatullin is an exiled human rights activist and director of the nongovernmental group Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. He views the Turkmen authorities as hostile to RFE/RL, which broadcasts in Turkmen under the name Radio Azatlyk.

"Radio Azatlyk is considered an opposition radio station, and the government's policy is: Those who do not praise us are our enemies," Tukhbatullin says.

Oliver Money-Kyrle is the director of the projects division of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. He paints a grim picture of the media environment in Turkmenistan, even by Central Asia's lagging standards.

"It's certainly one of the most oppressive countries in the world in terms of freedom of expression, free media -- probably the most oppressive country in the region," Money-Kyrle says. "[Turkmenistan] is effectively a closed country for free media and independent journalism."

Growing Alarm

Turkmen Service Director Narodetsky says concerns have mounted since RFE/RL lost contact with all its correspondents in Turkmenistan 10 days ago.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Alexander Narodetsky (RFE/RL)

"We cannot get [in touch with] any other correspondent in Turkmenistan because all the telephone lines with them are blocked -- and also the telephones lines of their relatives and some of their friends are blocked as well," Narodetsky says. "The information is zero about them."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement on March 9 in which it says it is "deeply alarmed" by the RFE/RL reporters' arrests.

The group calls RFE/RL "the only independent source of information in the country," adding that the situation leaves the population with no access to information other than state media.

Official Control

Mukhammet Velsapar is a journalist whose writings got him in trouble with the Turkmen authorities. He eventually had to leave the country, but said from his new home outside Central Asia that it would be incorrect to say the RFE/RL correspondents had "disappeared."

"In Turkmenistan, no one can simply vanish. It isn't like Russia, a huge country where a lot cannot be controlled," Velsapar says. "In Turkmenistan, everything is under control. Without the approval of the authorities, no one can just disappear -- especially correspondents of Radio Liberty."

RFE/RL's acting president, Jeff Trimble, described the arrests in a company press release as "persecution, without even a pretext of legality," and "a blatant violation of media freedom and the human rights of these brave journalists."