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Stranger than fiction: sorting the real from the fake in the bizarre media world of Turkmenistan

Stranger than fiction: sorting the real from the fake in the bizarre media world of Turkmenistan
An empty eight-lane highway leading to the Monument of Neutrality. Image: Felix Lowe

How do you report from a secretive nation where information is scarce and the absurd often turns out to be true? The Calvert Journal caught up with leading journalists covering Turkmenistan, who explain how they try to make sense of what’s real. Katie Davies reports

16 March 2018

For Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, father-protector and president of Turkmenistan, image is everything. He’s the world leader you’ll see throwing knives at the target range, performing self-composed pop hits to adoring fans, and scoring a flawless hole-in-one on the country’s only golf course. Clickbait-worthy clips of the president calling in airstrikes and unveiling statues to himself have endeared him to journalists across the globe. When Berdimuhamedov fell from his horse during a race in 2013, officials scrambled to stop spectators leaving the stadium in a bid to delete embarrassing mobile phone footage. In the West, the clip went viral.

For many, these snapshots are the only glimpse they’ll ever get of a country with a level of repression and human rights abuse that means it’s often compared to North Korea. Isolated and secretive, Turkmenistan’s internet is heavily censored and independent media outlets non-existent. In its 2017 survey, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkmenistan in 178th place out of 180 countries.

But it’s not just readers who find it difficult to get a full picture of Turkmenistan. Even experienced journalists are left struggling to tell fact from fiction away from the glare of the president’s stage-managed presence. To begin with reporters rarely find a way into the country at all, instead being refused visas, or having their permission to enter the country withdrawn at the last moment. Those who make it into the country are supervised throughout their stay. “I can say that verifying information from Turkmenistan is extremely difficult for any media outlet, unless they have a reliable source within the country,” says Joanna Lillis, a freelance journalist specialising in Central Asia based in neighbouring Kazakhstan. “I personally do very little reporting on Turkmenistan, primarily because of the difficulties of reporting reliably from such a closed country.”

This information black hole — as well as the eccentric nature of Berdimuhamedov’s ever-growing personality cult — means that every story takes on an air of plausibility. When reports surfaced in January that women had been banned from driving cars in the Turkmen capital, journalists rushed to verify the story. Turkmenistan’s tight grip over the country’s information sphere meant it took several days for the reports to be dismissed as fake. By then, stories confirming the rumours as true had already appeared in the regional press before being picked up by international titles, including Britain’s Daily Mail.

Such slip-ups are inevitable when the press is frozen out of the country, says Farruh Yusupov, head of the Turkmen Service for US news outlet RFE/RL. “The news was reported by Human Rights Organisations who never checked the facts”, he said. “They can’t replace news organisations. They don’t have the will or the means to check the information.”

While Turkmenistan does have national media outlets, all remain under strict state control. Newsreels heavily feature the president who can be seen visiting construction sites, factories or schools. “News about real events, as well as negative stories about crime, natural catastrophes and accidents, are not reported [in Turkmenistan]” says Naz Nazar, a Turkmen journalist now based in Germany. She reported from the country after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but says that she faced “immense problems” — including restrictions on what she could report and government surveillance. “Only those crimes that the government wants to use as propaganda are reported – and then in a strictly controlled fashion,” she says.

Even experienced journalists are left struggling to tell fact from fiction away from the glare of the president’s stage-managed presence

Even government-sanctioned reports are often garbled and confusing, with junior ministers and officials too scared to challenge contradicting or confusing official orders. Edda Schlager, a German freelance business journalist based in Kazakhstan, sometimes receives information from Turkmen-organised trade fairs or other official economic events via the German embassy in Ashgabat. She describes the Turkmen press releases as clumsy, crammed with jargon and severely lacking in communications know-how. “I know from business events organised together with the German side that there’s a high level of control [in the Turkmen government,” she says. “Everything is decided within ministries themselves and no one in lower management dares to break the hierarchy. Judging from this experience, there is a huge lack of knowledge of modern management.”

Foreign reporters, meanwhile, are largely frozen out. Three major news agencies — the Associated Press, AFP, and Reuters — are the only foreign outlets to have official correspondents working from the country. All are required to visit the country’s foreign ministry on a regular basis and need special permission to travel away from the capital, Ashgabat.

Other news outlets are forced to resort to using undercover reporters or sources — but even this carries risks. Nazar says she receives regular updates from a network of “very talented and bright people in the country”. Her efforts, however, are repeatedly hindered by authorities, who will threaten Turkmens who are seen as being too vocal.

“People are afraid or intimidated,” Nazar says. “The telephone lines can be listened in on and email accounts or chat forums can be hacked. Anything that doesn’t follow the official political line can be seen as slander and treason.”

The US-funded RFE/RL also runs a network of undercover reporters planted in the country’s government, police and businesses, says Turkmen Service chief Farruh Yusupov. He urged his sources to go underground following repeated attacks on the agency’s local correspondent, Soltan Achilova. “In a single year, she was attacked ten times. It was only when the US embassy got involved that she was left alone, but she is still under constant surveillance,” he says. “The secret service is not so secret.”

Yusupov says that while RFE/RL pays their sources “generously” for their work, ideological motivation remains their main driving force. “You can’t be doing it just for the money in Turkmenistan,” he says. “You have to have some kind of concern, concern for the country to be doing this.”

Without a North Korea-style nuclear threat, interest in Turkmenistan — and Central Asia as a whole — remains low, despite mass abuses of power

Other Turkmens are also concerned — enough to reach out to RFE/RL online and offer up their own stories from the ground. The service receives between five and six stories a day from Turkmen citizens on social media: a significant number for a country where Yusupov says people who have been interviewed by RFE/RL have previously received jail time. He says that all of the stories are checked by other sources and that most are confirmed as true.

But even when information can be gleaned from Turkmenistan, most of these hard-won stories never go further than regional or specialist press. Without a North Korea-style nuclear threat, interest in Turkmenistan — and Central Asia as a whole — remains low, despite mass abuses of power.

“As a journalist, I would say that there was a spurt of interest in the early 2000s when Central Asia was the focus of security cooperation with the West because of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, but that has long since subsided,” says Joanna Lillis. “It is difficult to rouse interest in Central Asia in the Western media; the West seems to view the region as remote and obscure — which is a shame, because there are many important stories happening here.”

Ultimately, coverage of Berdymukhamedov’s lavish statues and outrageous stunts does not come from a desire to understand an isolated and repressive Turkmenistan but the pressing need for page views and viral content. It’s an attitude which is frustrating for many who believe that regular, in-depth reporting could influence real change in the country. “The worse it gets in Turkmenistan, the less coverage there is,” says Nazar. “The press loses interest over time when there is no visible progress. That’s better for the Turkmen regime that has isolated itself and the country.”

Others, however, believe that every story — even those revelling in footage of President Berdimuhamedov acting as Turkmenistan’s answer to Rambo — has its place. “The Western media likes to report crazy stories, but most of what is happening in Turkmenistan is crazy,” says Yusupov. “Rising prices means that once basic foodstuffs such as sugar are now a luxury. At the same time, the present is spending a billion dollars on a hotel and a golf course. The president is the only person in Turkmenistan who plays golf.”

The president isn’t just aware that he’s mocked by the Western press, says Yusupov — he actively hates it. “[Berdymukhamedov] doesn’t want to appear as a silly guy,” he says. “The president wants the country to be prominent on the world stage. The more attention [on just how silly it is], the better it will be for the Turkmen people.”

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