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Last Messaging App 'Disappears' From Turkmenistan Amid World's Slowest Internet Speed

A woman at an Internet cafe in Ashgabat uses the world's slowest connection.
A woman at an Internet cafe in Ashgabat uses the world's slowest connection.

People in Turkmenistan now have no functioning instant-messaging app after the last existing one, IMO, became inaccessible in the country.

All other messaging apps and social media were already blocked by the authoritarian government in Ashgabat, leaving its citizens nominally cut off from the rest of the world.

The Central Asian country has repeatedly been cited by international experts as having the slowest Internet in the world. That snail-paced speed has slowed down even further in recent weeks, making it impossible to open websites and effectively "making IMO disappear" from the country, residents say.

"IMO no longer works and everything else was blocked long ago," an Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL via e-mail on August 3. "Even [foreign] television channels are disappearing [from the Internet]. We can't watch Euronews for about a week already," the resident said on condition of anonymity.

Some Turkmen continue to access blocked social-media sites via virtual private networks (VPNs) -- risking government retaliation -- but the crawling Internet makes it virtually impossible for many to open sites.

Customers say the Internet has been unprecedentedly slow even by Turkmen standards. Along with being extremely slow, it is also one the most expensive services worldwide.

A report by the U.K.-based on worldwide broadband speed found that Turkmenistan -- with an average Internet speed of 0.50 megabits per second (Mbps) -- was the slowest of all 224 countries and territories surveyed in 2021.

The report said it took about 22 hours and 34 minutes to download a film with a size of 5 gigabytes.

IMO was the last instant-messaging app still available in Turkmenistan after the authorities blocked the ICQ messenger in late April.

WhatsApp, Viber, and other apps have long been inaccessible in Turkmenistan, along with social-media sites like Facebook, Twitter, VK, Odnoklassniki, and the video-sharing platform YouTube. Most online independent and foreign media that focus on Turkmenistan cannot be opened inside the country without a VPN.

The Turkmen government is known for taking extreme measures to control the flow of information to and from the country and keeping its people in international isolation. There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan and all radio, TV, newspaper, and online news sites are controlled by the state.

The government also controls people's movement by preventing many from traveling abroad -- even removing passengers from foreign-bound flights despite valid tickets and visas.

"The only means for me to contact people in the outside world is e-mail, which still is accessible via smartphones," the Ashgabat resident said. But they ask not to call them directly via mobile phone or land line because the Turkmen "security services monitor overseas phone calls."

Turkmen state media only depicts a happy and prosperous life in Turkmenistan with staged photos and state-organized events.
Turkmen state media only depicts a happy and prosperous life in Turkmenistan with staged photos and state-organized events.

Several people told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that they had complained to the Internet provider -- state-owned Turkmentelecom -- about the continued worsening of the speed of the Internet, but that nothing changed.

Others said they tried purchasing more expensive packages with a greater data allowance, hoping to get faster Internet. But they said it was a waste of money, as the Internet remained snaillike regardless of the costlier deals.

In 2022, then-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the National Security Ministry to impose further controls on an already shackled Internet.

Speaking at a televised session of the State Security Council, Berdymukhammedov complained that "control over the Internet had not been properly conducted in 2021."

He ordered security services to focus more on people who post "ideas damaging to Turkmenistan's constitutional structures, actions that disrupt social order, and propagate terrorism, extremism, ultranationalism, and other illegal activities."

Nothing has changed since he stepped down as president last year and installed his son, Serdar, to replace him.

Turkmen authorities are aware that some people access social media via VPNs.

In June, police summoned several locally known bloggers and influencers and warned them to only post content that showed Turkmenistan in a positive light.

Police said criticism of the government on social media could mean prison, some of the bloggers told RFE/RL. Officers warned that even liking or commenting on content critical of the government was prohibited and could be seen as "anti-government activity," they said.

Those who were summoned by the police were young influencers who use Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to share videos, promote services and products, talk about themselves, or express their opinion on various -- mostly nonpolitical -- topics.

State media in Turkmenistan only promote the government's narrative of a "happy and prosperous" nation, depicting staged images and state-organized events and parades. The media and officials make no mention of the severe economic crisis, poverty, and unemployment that have plagued the gas-rich state for several years.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.

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

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