Story by Sher Khashimov for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
The following story is from the The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
In April, a delegation from Ashgabat met with U.N. officials in Geneva to discuss ongoing strategic partnerships between Turkmenistan and the United Nations. A dry official statement from Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry described rather routine meetings about copyright protections, collaboration in the information sphere, and disarmament. According to The Beet’s sources, however, the Turkmen officials were privately forced to respond to a 2021 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (an international network of investigative journalists, also known as OCCRP), that uncovered how, amid widespread food shortages, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov granted his nephew a $25.7-million contract to import state-subsidized staples.
The OCCRP investigation offered an unprecedented look at how the president and his family members — beginning under the aforementioned Berdimuhamedov senior, who ruled over Turkmenistan from 2006 to 2022 before transferring power to his son Serdar — control the country’s economic assets. A short documentary that accompanied the OCCRP investigation has almost 199,000 views on YouTube and is currently blocked in Turkmenistan.
“During those meetings [in Geneva], several U.N. officials expressed concerns over how state contracts are handed out to the president’s relatives,” said journalist Ruslan Myatiev, who coauthored the investigation. “The Turkmen delegation denied the allegations, of course.”
Myatiev is the editor of Turkmen.News, an independent media outlet based in the Netherlands. The son of prominent Turkmen journalists, Myatiev worked as a sports reporter for a local newspaper as a teenager and went on to study journalism at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. Upon graduating in 2008, however, he had to rule out going home to work as a journalist due to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Turkmenistan.
“After it came to light that my parents were working as independent journalists, they were fired from their jobs. My father was attacked in the streets. Somebody threw rocks at our apartment at night,” Myatiev told The Beet over Zoom from the Netherlands, where he and his family have lived since receiving political asylum in 2010. “My parents faced threats and the likelihood of imprisonment on trumped-up charges, so we left.”
‘Like Soviet propaganda run through the circus’
Unfortunately, the circumstances that drove the Myatievs to flee Turkmenistan are not unique. Journalists around the world have been facing increasing censorship, harassment, and death threats for years. More than 900 journalists have been murdered since 1993 — the vast majority with complete impunity for the perpetrators. Reporters Without Borders classified the press freedom situation as “very bad” in a record 28 countries in 2022, with another 42 classified as “difficult” and 62 as “problematic.”
Non-democracies in particular have seen a significant uptick in repressions, but wars, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic instability have in recent years eroded or stagnated press freedoms in democratic countries, as well. Dictators and criminal enterprises, meanwhile, see journalists as an existential threat and seek to discredit, diminish, or destroy their work.
But even in this context, Turkmenistan stands out. Today, the country ranks at the bottom of the most prominent democracy, corruption, and press freedom indexes. Elections are rigged, the Berdimuhamedov family dominates political and economic institutions, corruption is systemic, and there is zero tolerance for political dissent. The government also maintains tight control over the information space; major media outlets, including the news agency TDH, the newspapers Turkmenistan and Neytralny Turkmenistan, and the TV channel Altyn Asyr, are state-owned and broadcast government propaganda. Criticism of the president and other government officials is strictly prohibited. Journalists who defy the rules are prosecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed.
“The media environment in Turkmenistan is abysmal,” said Bruce Pannier, a long-time Central Asia analyst and a former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist. “The government doesn’t want you to listen to anything but state media. And their state media is like Soviet propaganda that’s been run through the circus. The government suppresses all criticism of its policies and actions, leaving citizens fearful and distrustful of independent information sources.”
“The Turkmen regime has ruled the country with an iron fist, not allowing any independent media to grow in the country,” explained Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The authorities subject many citizens, including journalists, to physical and digital surveillance,” she continued. “Currently, [journalist] Nurgeldi Halykov is serving a four-year prison term simply for sharing a photo [of World Health Organization representatives in Turkmenistan] during the first year of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Journalists can also be barred from traveling abroad, as happened with veteran journalist Soltan Achilova.”
Halykov, who previously contributed to Turkmen.News anonymously to protect himself from government reprisals, was imprisoned on dubious fraud charges. According to Turkmen.News, the prison administration has placed Halykov in a punishment cell on at least three occasions. Achilova, whom the police previously arrested, physically assaulted, and threatened over her work for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, was prevented from leaving Turkmenistan in 2019. At the time, she was freelancing for The Chronicle of Turkmenistan, a Vienna-based outlet whose founder, the famous Turkmen human rights advocate Farid Tukhbatullin, once suffered a similar fate.
“The government used an alleged assassination attempt on President [Saparmurat] Niyazov as a pretext to arrest a whole bunch of opposition-minded folks, including my father,” said Ruslan Tukhbatullin, Farid’s son and the current editor of The Chronicles of Turkmenistan. “He was held for four months and was let go only due to pressure from the international community but was banned from his advocacy [work].” Tukhbatullin immediately left to join his family in Russia and later accepted a political-asylum offer during a human rights conference in Austria.
That said, Turkmen journalists aren’t entirely safe abroad either. Instances of transnational repression targeting opposition figures and independent journalists are growing more frequent around the world. And Turkmenistan’s regime is no stranger to engaging in such tactics. In 2021 alone, the National Security Ministry repeatedly harassed and threatened the relatives of Rozybai Jumamuradov and Devlet Bayhan, two exiled journalists who report for The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, in an effort to silence them or pressure them to return to Turkmenistan.
“The threats have died down a bit in the last year or two, but there were several instances in the past when we had to ask Austrian police for protection,” recalled Tukhbatullin. The Tukhbatullins and the Myatievs are too high profile to hide their names anymore, but the rest of their teams are forced to work anonymously to avoid threats and harassment, to protect their loved ones, and to shield their sources.
“Our distant relatives in Turkmenistan were forced to disown us because my work puts them in an anxious position,” admitted Myatiev. “Sometimes there are menacing comments under my articles that say, ‘Think of your relatives, of what could happen to them.’ These are the realities of our work.”
‘The authorities block things, left and right’
Operating in exile also means trading away any ease of reporting. For one, working remotely requires relying on a clandestine network of on-the-ground reporters and sources who are increasingly harder to recruit and contact, given the security risks. The dangers to their reporters and sources are so great that all of the independent Turkmen journalists The Beet interviewed flat out refused to reveal any details of how they communicate with their teams.
“We all face the ethical dilemma of balancing the inherent security risks with the value of on-the-ground reporting. There are no days when answering this dilemma is easy; even the smallest editorial decisions could get someone arrested or tortured,” explained an independent Turkmen journalist and activist based in Turkey, who asked to remain anonymous.
Delivering uncensored information and independent reporting to people living in Turkmenistan is even more difficult. Turkmenistan’s government operates one of the most prohibitive Internet firewalls in the world, which is reportedly blocking more than 2.5 billion IP addresses and 122,000 domains, including those of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Turkmen.News, The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, and the opposition-founded Gundogar. Technical and regulatory restrictions make Turkmenistan’s Internet service the slowest and most expensive in the world. While 80 percent of Turkmenistan’s citizens had cell phones as of 2020, only 26 percent used the Internet and just one percent had social media accounts. The use of VPNs, encrypted messengers like Signal and Telegram, and protected email services like Proton is treated as a punishable offense. And the authorities even use flawed content moderation and copyright policies to block independent reporting on social media sites.
“[These restrictions] make it extremely difficult [for sources in Turkmenistan] to send us even a photo, much less a video,” Myatiev lamented. “Even with the widespread use of smartphone cameras that can capture events on the ground, people just lack good [enough] Internet access to inform us.”
The only entities that have unrestricted Internet access in Turkmenistan are government agencies and a handful of foreign embassies and commercial companies. “At any given moment, whenever I check our website analytics, there’s a handful of people reading us from IP addresses in Turkmenistan. We think these are the security services keeping tabs on us,” said Myatiev.
To reach readers in Turkmenistan, independent outlets are forced to rely on a patchwork of communications methods, ranging from social media and messaging apps to mirror sites. Such methods are what made Turkmen.News a success story; Myatiev started working independently in 2010, aggregating news about Turkmenistan in an email-blast that he sent out to 300 people in his contacts. People then started reaching out to him and asking to be added to his mailing list. Within a year, Myatiev had amassed a subscriber base of 3,000 people. A couple of years later, he turned his newsletter into a media outlet using nothing but his own savings.
But such scrappiness is costly. Operating multiple communications channels, maintaining websites and their mirrors, defending against cyberattacks, and being based in Western countries with higher living costs exacerbates the financial toll for independent Turkmen outlets. As a result, these newsrooms operate on shoestring budgets and with small teams.
“We exist mostly on international grants as revenue sources are very limited to us,” Tukhbatullin told The Beet. “There’s no ad revenue. Those who read us in Turkmenistan either lack the technical means of donating to us or are afraid to do so. Those who read us from abroad are students or labor migrants who can’t afford to support us financially either.”
“My team is made up of three and a half people,” Myatiev added with a bitter smile.
‘This work is like a rollercoaster’
Despite being forced out of their country, lacking funding, and facing threats, harassment, and the challenges of reporting on a country with a highly regulated information space full of unwritten rules and gray areas, Turkmen independent journalists have plenty of successes to boast.
Myatiev’s Turkmen.News is the first and only organization from Turkmenistan to join the OCCRP network — an honor bestowed upon only the most rigorous and dogged investigative outlets around the world. Since 2021, Myatiev has co-authored several detailed investigations into corruption and nepotism in Turkmenistan, and he’s also an active member of the Cotton Campaign, which fights against state-imposed forced labor in Central Asia. “Each of our investigations grows our followers base and the number of sources we have in the country,” Myatiev told The Beet.
Tukhbatullin’s Chronicles of Turkmenistan, meanwhile, has been patiently and meticulously documenting human rights abuses in the country for more than 15 years. The outlet has amassed more than 107,000 subscribers on YouTube, putting it on par with other notable Central Asian media outlets like Asia Plus and Kloop that operate in the relatively less hostile media environments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively.
Both Tukhbatullin and Myatiev (who, in addition to sharing a first name and passion for journalism, were classmates in high school) show immense pride in their defiant work, although they admit that it takes an emotional toll. “This work is like a rollercoaster,” Tukhbatullin laughed somberly when asked why he works in journalism. “The pressure, the stress — it all builds up, it can be very difficult. But it’s important work. When [my father and I] started out, there were very few who reported on Turkmenistan. I’m happy there are more of us now.”
“It can be tough, especially when my reporters get arrested. But there are more days when I’m happy and proud to do this work,” Myatiev said.
Asked if he has any hope for Turkmenistan, the journalist took a pensive pause. “All my thoughts and all my dreams are connected to my country. All I want is to be useful to Turkmenistan,” Myatiev replied. “I’ve lived in many countries and there are so many positive, constructive lessons I could bring back to help improve Turkmenistan. And I hope someday I will finally return.”
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