Turkmenistan: The state reinforces propaganda campaigns following rumours of the president’s death

This report reviews the protection of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Turkmenistan from the beginning of July to the beginning of November 2019. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared the report as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

During the period covered by the update, Turkmenistan came into the international spotlight when reports about the alleged death of its president appeared on the internet in July 2019. Rather than simply denying the rumours, the authorities orchestrated a defamation campaign against those accused of spreading this information and detained several people on this ground.

The authorities also continued their efforts to cover up the protracted economic crisis in the country, and state-controlled media published new articles discrediting independent foreign-based outlets covering Turkmenistan, such as TIHR’s website. After TIHR published a corruption-related article in August 2019, national security services summoned dozens of people in an attempt to identify the organisation’s sources of information in the country.

As part of the government’s efforts to monitor the “loyalty” of citizens and identify regime critics, the national security services reinforced measures to recruit informants, among others, at the country’s universities and within the large Turkmenistani community in Turkey.

A new investigative report, published by the non-profit organisation Qurium highlighted the wide-ranging restrictions on internet use in the country and provided details on the techniques used by the authorities to block websites. Increased problems with internet access were reported in connection with the publication of the reports about the alleged death of the president, as well as the celebration of Independence Day in September 2019. In connection with Independence Day, as well as the Kurban Bayram holiday in August 2019, the authorities again forcibly mobilised residents for state-organised festivities. In a new trend, during the rehearsals for these events, government propagandists resorted to anti-Western rhetoric, in addition to the usual pro-presidential slogans.

In a welcome development, in August 2019, independent journalist Soltan Achilova was informed that she was no longer banned from travelling abroad. This appeared to be the result of international attention to her case after the authorities prevented her from leaving the country in March 2019. Thousands of other people are believed to remain blacklisted for travel abroad.

Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who was imprisoned in 2016 after monitoring and reporting on human rights violations in the cotton harvest, was released in September 2019 when his three-year prison sentence ended. In spite of international campaigning in Matalaev’s support, as well as calls by UN experts for his release, the Turkmenistani authorities refused to release him before he had served the full prison term.

An updated list of victims of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan, which the Prove They Are Alive! campaign published in September 2019, features 121 names. Among those removed from the list was dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, who was allowed visits by his relatives after his original 11-year prison sentence expired in spring 2019. However, the authorities failed to release him; instead, they arbitrarily prolonged his sentence. A new name added to the list of the disappeared was that of Omruzak Omarkuliyev, who was arrested in 2018 after establishing a Turkmen student association in Turkey. He is believed to be serving a long prison sentence, but there has been no news about him since last year. A video posted on the internet that sought to disprove the information about Omarkuliyev’s imprisonment and disappearance appeared to form part of government propaganda.

Expression

Defamation campaign in response to rumours about the president’s death

The authorities continue to strictly control the dissemination of information in the country, use state media as tools for propaganda and suppress criticism of state policies.

On 21st July 2019, reports appeared on the internet, alleging that Turkmenistan’s president had died. Rather than merely denying the rumours, the Turkmenistani government orchestrated a defamation campaign against those accused of disseminating this information. Articles posted on state-controlled media resources criticised, insulted and attacked sites and journalists who had published the reports about the president’s death, and a number of pro-government celebrities shared video clips on Instagram labelling those who spread this information as “slanderers” and “traitors”. TIHR’s sources also learned that three individuals were detained in the Lebap region on charges of “spreading rumours destabilising the situation in the country”.TIHR has received no further information about the fate of these individuals.

Continued efforts to cover up the economic crisis

The government also continues its efforts to cover up the economic crisis facing the country. In an example of these efforts, TIHR’s sources reported that local authorities closed the Bereketli market in Ashgabat to visitors on 20th September 2019, while TV operators filmed trading stalls full of vegetables, fruit, pastries and eggs. This footage was apparently intended to be broadcast on state TV in order to demonstrate the supposed “surplus” of foodstuff in the country. In reality, there is a continued shortage of basic foodstuffs in the country, in particular eggs, flour and vegetable oil.

Measures targeting TIHR for its independent reporting

In mid-August 2019, TIHR published an article about the dismissal of two officials from the prosecutor’s office in the Lebap region on corruption allegations. The following month, the organisation learned that the authorities had taken measures aimed at identifying the sources of this information. The regional department of the Ministry of National Security summoned dozens of people for questioning and officials reportedly warned them that those who had provided information about the case to TIHR could be prosecuted for defaming law enforcement authorities or revealing state secrets. TIHR has, however, not received information about any arrests following the threats.

As covered previously in the CIVICUS Monitor, state-controlled media outlets regularly publish articles discrediting and attacking information posted by independent foreign-based sources covering Turkmenistan, such as TIHR’s website, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan. The gundogar-news.com site has created a separate section for such articles, called “Rubbish about us”. In a recent example, on 21st September 2019, a letter to the editor appeared in this section, in which the father of an army conscript supposedly found fault with the Chronicles of Turkmenistan for publishing the news about the death of five conscripts. The author of the letter accused the site of using “people’s grief” to “gain fame and money”, of publishing “tales” and of being “chronic liars”. At the same time, the letter did not provide any facts refuting the information about the death of the five conscripts.

Journalist removed from blacklist

As we reported in the previous update, migration officials stopped independent journalist Soltan Achilova at Ashgabat airport in March 2019 and informed her that she had been blacklisted for travel abroad. In July 2019, the migration authorities confirmed the ban in writing, without providing any explanation for it. Following international attention to Achilova’s case, including from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the travel ban against her was eventually lifted. In August 2019, a national security official visited Achilova in her home and told her that she is again allowed to travel abroad.

Activist released after serving full term

On 6th September 2019, Gaspar Matalaev, an activist monitoring and reporting on human rights violations during the cotton harvest in Turkmenistan, was released after serving the full three-year prison term to which he was sentenced in 2016. As we have reported before, Matalaev was arrested in October 2016 and imprisoned after being convicted on fraud and bribery charges in an unfair trial. He was allegedly forced to confess to these charges under torture. His arrest came shortly after his photographic report about the use of forced labour during the cotton harvest appeared on the Turkmen.news site. In 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed Matalaev’s imprisonment unlawful. Human rights organisations also campaigned in his support and more than 100 000 people signed on to an international petition calling for his release.

Internet restrictions

As repeatedly covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, internet use is seriously restricted in Turkmenistan. This trend was confirmed in an investigative report published in July 2019 by Qurium, a Swedish-based non-profit foundation that provides digital security services to journalists, activists and human rights defenders. The organisation concluded:

“A small part of the population has access to a highly-censored version of the internet, where all regime critical websites are blocked, as well as all social media platforms."

It found that the government currently uses several different techniques to block websites, including DNS spoofing, HTTP Host Header Inspection and IP blocking. In addition, it found that the government not only blocks Turkmenistan-related news sites, but also international news sites such as the BBC, Reuters and Deutsche Welle, as well as global social media platforms and messenger apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LiveJournal, Messenger, Line and Telegram.

While internet speed generally is slow in Turkmenistan compared to global standards, independent sources reported a further deterioration on several occasions during the period covered by this update. In particular, following the publication of reports about the alleged death of the president in July 2019 (see more above), a significant deterioration of internet services was observed in the country and previously available VPN applications, used to access blocked websites, became inaccessible. Similarly, ahead of the celebration of Independence Day in September 2019, residents reported that internet speed and services deteriorated. Among others, they reported serious difficulties using the IMO messenger, the only messenger application that is not blocked in the country.

Government recruitment of informers

As reported in the previous update, Turkmenistan’s authorities monitor the “loyalty” of citizens in different ways, including by recruiting informants. A growing number of students, labour migrants and other people from Turkmenistan live in Turkey. According to TIHR’s information, the national security services have stepped up efforts to monitor the activities of these citizens, in particular their use of the internet to obtain, exchange and discuss information on developments in Turkmenistan by accessing sites that are blocked inside their home country. For this purpose, national security officials recruit informants to gather and report information about the activities of their co-citizens in Turkey. Those who agree to become informants are often people who have issues with their visas for residing in Turkey and are promised assistance with sorting out these issues.

At the same time, relatives of labour migrants working in Turkey and other countries have come under renewed pressure at home in Turkmenistan. For example, in August 2019, law enforcement authorities in the Mary region reportedly carried out a targeted operation to gather information about citizens working abroad and summoned relatives of such individuals for questioning.

According to the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the national security services have also increased their efforts to recruit informants at Turkmenistan’s universities. The recruited “agents”, who include both students and teachers, are required to monitor and report information about students who express dissatisfaction with the authorities or use VPN services to access websites and use messenger apps that are blocked in Turkmenistan. In return for their services, recruited students are promised assistance with securing attractive jobs upon graduation, while teachers are threatened with dismissal if they refuse to cooperate. 

Association and Peaceful Assembly

Continued practice of forced mobilisation

The authorities continue to mobilise residents for state-organised mass events, threatening them with dismissal or other repercussions, in violation of the right to freedom of assembly. During the period covered by this update, such mobilisation took place across the country in connection with the official celebrations of Kurban Bayram, a major Islamic holiday marked in mid-August this year, and Independence Day, marked on 27th September 2019.

These are two examples of how residents were forcibly mobilised for these festivities:

  • TIHR learned that employees at state institutions in Ashgabat were required to participate in marching exercises at the Dagdan stadium for several hours a day ahead of the Independence Day celebrations. When the rehearsals began in early August 2019, the outdoor temperature was 35-40 degrees Celsius in the capital, making the marching exercises highly challenging for the participants.
  • The Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that not only state employees and university students but also children attending school and kindergarten were mobilised to participate in the filming of official Kurban Bayram festivities in the city of Mary. The filming, which was carried out in advance of the holiday, lasted several hours and took place outside when the temperature was over 40 degrees Celsius. According to the service, local officials threatened parents that their children would be expelled from school or kindergarten if they refused to allow the children to participate. The RFE/RL also reported that state employees were required to provide supposedly “voluntary” contributions to help cover the costs associated with the official Kurban Bayram and Independence Day celebrations.

Moreover, during the rehearsals for the Independence Day and Kurban Bayram celebrations, government propagandists sought to foster anti-Western sentiments, in addition to calling on the participants to rally around the president:

  • According to the Turkmen service of RFE/RL, government representatives present at rehearsals told the participants that the United States and other Western countries want to “harm and destroy” Turkmenistan and that these countries “cause riots and chaos” and “organise revolutions”. The propagandists also warned the participants that the country’s “enemies” “must not learn about our economic difficulties” and that the Turkmen people “should demonstrate that it lives happily”.

Updated list of disappeared prisoners published

In September 2019, the Prove They are Alive! NGO campaign published an updated list of the victims of enforced disappearances in Turkmenistan. The new list includes the names of 121 such victims.

Compared to the previous version of the list, some names were removed as the individuals in question have been released or the prisoners’ relatives informed about their whereabouts. Among those removed from the list is dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, who was imprisoned on charges of illegal border crossing after returning to Turkmenistan from exile in 2008. As covered before, he was held incommunicado and denied contact with his family for years. In spring 2019, his 11-year sentence was due to expire; however, instead of releasing him, the authorities added five more years to his sentence, but transferred him from prison to a police supervised settlement and allowed his relatives to visit him. On this ground, he was removed from the list of victims of disappearances.

Other names were instead added to the list of the disappeared, including that of Omruzak Omarkuliyev, a university student who established a Turkmen student association in Turkey. As covered before, the authorities first barred Omarkuliyev from leaving Turkmenistan and then arrested him after he travelled to his home country in February 2018 on invitation to participate in a government-organised preparatory event for the parliamentary elections. He was reportedly sentenced to 20 years of deprivation of liberty on trumped-up charges, but the details of his conviction and current whereabouts are unknown.

Shortly after the inclusion of Omarkuliyev’s name on the list published by the Prove They are Alive! campaign, a video appeared on the internet seeking to disprove the reports about the imprisonment and disappearance of the student activist. The video, prepared by a former RFE/RL correspondent who was imprisoned in 2011-2016 on charges considered fabricated, claims that Omarkuliyev is in fact serving in Turkmenistan’s army. It also claims that Omarkuliyev’s father, who was previously reported to have died of a heart attack following his son’s arrest, is still alive and personally asked the journalist to prepare the video to “put an end to the dissemination of rumours” about his family. While the video features footage of Omarkuliyev supposedly carrying out his army service, as well as of a man said to be his father, neither of them speaks in the video. Fellow journalists who analysed the video found it questionable and its authenticity has not been confirmed.