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Turkmenistan Ramps Up Controls Over Outside Information

People wearing protective face masks ride a bus in Ashgabat, despite the country officially having had no cases of COVID-19.
People wearing protective face masks ride a bus in Ashgabat, despite the country officially having had no cases of COVID-19.

Police in authoritarian Turkmenistan are reportedly further tightening controls over information as the secretive country downplays the coronavirus pandemic and clamps down on brewing discontent over years of economic turmoil.

RFE/RL's correspondents report that police have been searching the smartphones of medical professionals at hospitals and tracking down young people who use VPNs that allow Internet users to skirt restrictions.

In the eastern city of Turkmenabat, police have reportedly been checking the phones of health-care workers to find out who has been speaking to RFE/RL and other media about the pandemic situation in the tightly controlled country.

RFE/RL and other independent publications have reported that the country's population is suffering from coronavirus, hospitals are strained, and deaths are rising.

Meanwhile, Turkmen authorities continue to pretend there is no coronavirus in the country, which hasn't registered any official cases.

State media does not cover the situation either, even as the country enforces multiple health-related restrictions.

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Turkmenistan began vaccinations against coronavirus in early February using the Russian-produced Sputnik V shot. But the authorities have not officially announced the start of a vaccination campaign.

Turkmenistan's security services regularly check the personal information of people and use Internet blocking methods and surveillance of virtual private network (VPN) users to limit the availability of independent information.

The authorities in the city of Mary have stepped up their search for those using VPNs by stopping people on the streets to inspect mobile phones, calling suspects in for questioning, and detaining alleged violators for up to 15 days.

The crackdown comes as the authorities are on edge over a growing protest movement in the country and in the diaspora spurred by the oppressive political environment and deteriorating economic conditions.

According to a joint statement issued by the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center and the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on March 4, there are also increasing reports of new pressure on citizens of Turkmenistan living abroad and active on the Internet.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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