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Turkmenistan: A New Obstacle For Access To The Airwaves

Is the ban on satellite dishes only intended to beautify Ashgabat? (Chronicles of Turkmenistan) (Courtesy Photo) Since taking over this year, new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been viewed hopefully as a possible reformer who might open up one of the world's most repressive societies. But a new order to remove all private satellite dishes from homes in Ashgabat -- which critics say could block access to independent information -- is quickly tarnishing that image.

After holding cordial talks with EU officials in Brussels in November, Berdymukhammedov returned home with a burnished image as a man the West can do business with -- a man apparently set to free up Turkmenistan after the bizarre reign of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

But in a nationally televised speech on November 30, Berdymukhammedov seemed to take a step backward. He announced he had ordered the minister of communications to remove satellite dishes from apartment blocks in Ashgabat, the capital. In their place, he said, would go "a single powerful dish" on each building.

"Perhaps this does not pose such a big problem," Berdymukhammedov said, adding that the move was intended to remove a blight on the skyline and make Ashgabat a prettier city.

Given the country's recent history of state control and intimidation, it is unsurprising that there are skeptics who fear the real motives lie elsewhere.

While the president did not specify who would be in control of the single dishes, rights activists suspect the government will now determine what Turkmen can tune in to.

Farid Tuhbatullin, an exiled activist and chairman of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, sees Berdymukhammedov's move as a clear violation of Turkmen civil rights.

"They [satellite dishes] are the only source of information in Turkmenistan at present," Tuhbatullin says. "If they are removed or, as the president said, replaced by a single dish, it will be a violation of a right to receive free information. Not only does it violate current Turkmen legislation, but also human rights -- the right to own private property and the right to receive and choose information."

Satellite television penetration in Ashgabat is significant. With a flood of cheap, Chinese-made dishes that cost as little as $50, Tuhbatullin says almost every family in the capital of 500,000 people has at least one, maybe more. He said people in Turkmenistan can access the Hotbird or AsiaSat satellites, and that they watch mostly Russian, Turkish, and Iranian channels, as well as Western networks such as CNN and BBC. Residents of the border areas near Uzbekistan watch Uzbek television as well.

New President Loses Liberal Sheen

Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, had given hope to many inside and outside Turkmenistan after coming to power earlier this year. For over two decades, the country lived under the rule of Niyazov, who created a notorious cult of personality. He died in December 2006.

In one of his first moves, Berdymukhammedov reinstated pensions for elderly citizens, which Niyazov had cancelled. It was welcome news in a country where nearly half the population lives in poverty despite huge fossil-fuel resources. There were also reports that traveling inside the country and in border areas with neighboring Uzbekistan had become easier in recent months.

And in a move praised by Western governments, Berdymukhammedov ordered the release of nearly a dozen prisoners, including a former chief mufti, in August. However, his amnesty of prisoners announced in early October did not include prominent political prisoners -- opponents of Niyazov's regime.

Berdymukhammedov meeting with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels (official site)

In the West, which hopes to gain access to Turkmen energy resources, Berdymukhammedov has also been viewed with cautious optimism. His new "multivector" foreign policy has resulted in many more contacts with Western diplomats, even taking him to Brussels in early November for landmark meetings with the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Yet his order to remove satellite dishes has drawn a cloud over this emerging positive image. Not even Niyazov, who had total control over domestic media, managed to remove satellite dishes from people's homes.

Oleg Panfilov, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, believes the real reason behind the order is not to improve Ashgabat's look, but to "deprive" the Turkmen people of independent information. "I am becoming more and more confident that Berdymukhammedov is not a liberal at all," Panfilov says. "It's clear that steps he has taken and his public statements are aimed primarily at the West. [In practice], there are no serious changes."

Panfilov speculates that Berdymukhammedov may be uneasy about the Turkmen public getting independent information via satellite because he does not feel his authority is strong enough. "Niyazov was more powerful and in control and therefore did not really impose a ban on satellite dishes in practice," Panfilov says.

Satellite dishes sprang up like mushrooms in early 1990s, when Berdymukhammedov's predecessor tightened his grip on local media and banned foreign media outlets. The situation in some ways paralleled what was happening in neighboring Iran. There, satellite dishes were banned in 1995, partly because of broadcasts by Iranian opposition groups beamed mostly from the United States.

Previous Iranian governments had rarely enforced that ban, acknowledging that the dishes would sprout back up every time authorities tried to round them up. But under the hard-line rule of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, police are instructed to crack down on independent satellite dishes and organize regular raids that may go as far as to include the use of helicopters, to locate and confiscate privately owned dishes. Owners are likely to be imprisoned and expected to pay a heavy fine.

It is yet to be seen whether Turkmen authorities will go as far as their Iranian counterparts, but the signs are not encouraging.

The Turkmen president's speech on November 30 also assumed some of the bizarre tones that characterized Niyazov's rhetoric. "Streets in the city are extremely dirty, and there are tree leaves everywhere," Berdymukhammedov said, ordering the use of recently imported vehicles to clean city streets.

He also ordered the Interior Ministry and public organizations to take measures against smokers and their litter. "One cannot go around without seeing cigarette butts everywhere in the city. Streets are full of smoking people," he said. "The problem has lasted so long because some senior officials are smokers themselves. There should not be such things at all."

The speech seemed straight from the playbook of Niyazov, who famously condemned gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and other seemingly personal choices. He also banned ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, and a circus. The leader called Turkmenbashi -- the "Father of All Turkmen" -- believed they violated national values.

Perhaps his successor agrees.

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

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