ASHGABAT -- Authorities in Turkmenistan have yet to admit there are any cases of the coronavirus in the country. Now, officials are making sure the word doesn't appear in print or casual conversations either.
RFE/RL correspondents in the capital, Ashgabat, report that people talking in public about the pandemic were being quickly whisked away by plainclothes agents.
The word "coronavirus" also has disappeared from newly published state brochures on disease prevention in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation.
In place of old brochures instructing citizens about ways to prevent the spread of the virus, new publications replace the word "coronavirus" with words like "illness" and "acute respiratory diseases."
“The Turkmen authorities have lived up to their reputation by adopting this extreme method for eradicating all information about the coronavirus,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of the media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The lack of any report confirming even one coronavirus infection in Turkmenistan has raised suspicions and criticism about the country's official data on the pandemic.
Countries that border Turkmenistan -- including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan -- have registered dozens of infections.
To the south, nearby Iran had reported more than 44,700 infections by March 31, including nearly 3,000 deaths.
Turkmenistan's government sealed off Ashgabat on March 20 without any public announcement by authorities or state media about the reasons for the closure.
Traffic between the country’s provinces has been restricted as well, with checkpoints set up on highways.
Concern over the outbreak among locals, along with the restrictions, has pushed food prices to record highs.
“This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov," Cavelier said on March 31. "We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations."