The few remaining independent journalists in Turkmenistan are facing an "unprecedented crackdown," a media watchdog said ahead of an election that seems certain to hand the authoritarian president a new term.
"We urge the country's foreign partners to press Turkmenistan to deliver serious human rights reforms and to uphold the right to freedom of expression,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a February 10 statement.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 59, is expected to easily win a seven-year term in the February 12 election that rights groups say will be tightly controlled by the state.
Berdymukhammedov has ruled the Central Asian nation of 5.3 million since the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. He has control over all aspects of society and tolerates no dissent.
"Persecution of the few independent journalists who are left has intensified steadily during the past two years," RSF said.
Several RFE/RL journalists have faced pressure, including detention and physical violence from the authorities, during that period.
RFE/RL contributor Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was sentenced to three years in prison in 2015 on a drug-possession charge. Another contributor, Khudayberdy Allashov, was arrested in December on a charge of possessing chewing tobacco, and the company said police beat him and rounded up his family.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in a February 10 statement that Nepeskuliev and Allashov "should be immediately released from prison and allowed to resume their work with RFE/RL to report the news to the Turkmen people."
"Voters everywhere have a fundamental right to accurate information about the choices they must make," Kent said.
Late last year, RFE/RL journalist Soltan Achilova was physically attacked on repeated occasions, and officials threatened to jail another RFE/RL correspondent, Rovshan Yazmukhamedov, by revoking a suspended sentence he received in 2013.
Turkmenistan is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.
No election in Turkmenistan has been recognized as free and fair by Western-based international monitoring organizations.
Constitutional amendments adopted in September increased presidential terms from five to seven years and scrapped the 70-year age limit for holders of the office.