Increased internet censorship; mass mobilisation for regime-praising events continues

Introduction

This is an update on developments affecting freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Turkmenistan in the period from November 2019 to January 2020. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) have prepared this update as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

Turkmenistan has consistently featured at the bottom of international indexes measuring the level of freedom and democracy in countries across the world. In the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by Transparency International in January 2020, Turkmenistan was ranked 165th among 180 countries, which was the lowest ranking of any country in the former Soviet Union. While corruption is widespread in Turkmenistan, the authorities have failed to take systematic measures to address this problem, and their campaign against corruption is largely “demonstrative” in nature. For example, when two former high-ranking government officials were convicted of large-scale corruption in late November 2019, the case was prominently covered on state TV for the apparent purposes of demonstrating that the authorities are fighting corruption and setting an example for other officials.

As repeatedly covered before, the Turkmenistani authorities control all national media and use them as outlets for state propaganda. At the same time, they restrict access to foreign sources of information, in particular the internet. Internet access remains slow, expensive and highly censored as many independent Turkmenistan-covering sites, social media platforms and communication apps are blocked. In new examples of internet censorship seen during the period covered by this update, the global online encyclopedia Wikipedia was blocked in the country after it featured an unflattering description of Turkmenistan’s president, and an increasing number of VPN (Virtual Private Network) apps used to circumvent internet censorship became unavailable. Amid government fears of growing opposition to its policies among Turkmenistani diaspora communities, there were reports of an increasing number of cases in which citizens were arbitrarily barred from leaving the country to work and study abroad. The authorities also continued attempts to cover up socio-economic problems in the country, forced state employees and students to participate in regime-praising events and to help cover the costs associated with such events, at the threat of repercussions. In one case that TIHR learned about, several kindergarten teachers quit their jobs because they were tired of constantly having to take part in state-organised mass events and to pay for decorations, costumes and the like from their meagre salaries.

Due to the lack of opportunities to protest at home, citizens sometimes see appeals to foreign-based Turkmenistan-covering outlets as the only avenue to draw attention to injustices faced in the country. These issues are described in more detail below.

Peaceful Assembly

Continued practice of forceful mobilisation for state events

As reported previously on the Monitor, authorities continue to mobilise residents for state-organised celebrations and other mass events, on the threat of dismissal or other repercussions. These events are often preceded by time-consuming rehearsals, such as in this case:

  • For several days prior to the Neutrality Day celebrations held in the capital on 12th December 2019, employees at state institutions and students were required to participate in hour-long rehearsals at the stadium in the Olympic village. According to TIHR’s information, this resulted in a lack of staff at many institutions, which was particularly noticeable at medical facilities where patients seeking treatment were sent home or forced to wait for hours because most personnel were attending rehearsals. Students, who attended the rehearsals after their classes had ended for the day, complained that they were left with little time for independent study.
  • In addition to being mobilised to participate in various state events, state employees and students are also often required to provide contributions to help cover costs associated with such events. For example, the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that university students in Ashgabat were required to pay 1200 Manat (USD 340 according to the official exchange rate, which corresponds to an average monthly salary) for the purchase of costumes to wear during their participation in official New Year celebrations. The service noted that students are typically warned that they may be suspended if they refuse to pay these contributions.
  • In another example, TIHR’s monitors reported that people working at state institutions in the Lebap region were required to help pay for Christmas tree decorations for the official New Year celebrations in this region, in which state employees and students were also mobilised to take part. A sum of 30 Manat was withheld from the monthly salary of the employees affected, and the heads of state institutions reportedly stated that those who did not agree to pay would be regarded as obstructing the organisation of a state event and expected to leave their jobs.
  • TIHR also learned about a case in which a number of kindergarten employees in Turkmenabad – the main city of the Lebap region - quit their jobs because they were tired of constantly being required to participate in various mass events and contribute to funds to cover the costs related to such events and other state needs. According to the kindergarten employees, when they were hired they had been asked to sign a standard agreement that they may be dismissed and should have no complaints if they refused to participate in “mass events aimed at glorifying the great achievements of the country and its leadership” or undertook other actions “that may be regarded as disrespectful to the authorities”.

Expression

Slow and expensive internet

As reported previously on the Monitor, internet access in Turkmenistan is expensive and connectivity is slow compared to global standards. The cheapest unlimited, fixed internet connection offered by the state provider, Turkmen Telekom, costs 150 Manat (some 40 EUR, or about 10 percent of the average salary) per month, with a speed of 256 Kbps (0.25 Mbps). However, a test carried out by a TIHR correspondent showed that the real speed was even lower, at about 130 Kbps (0.13 Mbps) during the busiest hours of internet usage during the day. According to TIHR’s sources, the speed of the internet connection varies depending on the number of internet users online, so at times the speed may be slightly higher. The fastest unlimited, fixed internet connection the Turkmen state provider offers to private individuals has an announced speed of 2 Mbps. This option comes at a stately price of 350 Manat (or about 90 EUR) per month. Yet, this speed is still significantly slower than the global average which, according to the Speed Test Global Index was 74.32 Mbps in January 2020. Turkmenistan was last in the global index provided by this site which covered 176 countries. The slow speed of the internet plays a role in censorship exercised in the country. Through the slow speed of the internet, citizens are denied access to independent sources of information, social networks and instant messaging services. Thus, this has a limiting effect on freedom of expression.

Wikipedia site blocked

Websites that provide independent coverage of developments in Turkmenistan, such as TIHR’s site, continue to be blocked in the country. At the beginning of November 2019, the global online encyclopedia Wikipedia was also reportedly blocked in the country after the Russian-language entry under the ‘personality and views’ section on Turkmenistan’s President Berdimukhamedov was updated with unfavourable quotes. The section featured documents and some correspondence from the US Embassy in Ashgabat which were published on Wikileaks. According to the leaked information, which was published by Wikileaks, Berdimukhamedov is “vain, fastidious, vindictive”, “does not like people who are smarter than he is” and is “suspicious, incredulous and very conservative”.

Government campaign against censorship circumvention tools

In addition to blocking websites that provide independent coverage of Turkmenistan, social media platforms and communication apps, the authorities also seek to prevent the use of VPN (Virtual Private Networks) apps that are used to access blocked sites. According to TIHR’s information, in recent months, the authorities have further stepped up efforts to restrict the use of VPNs by blocking access to an increasing number of apps that have become popular among residents, including both free and paid ones. This development comes after a new government service for internet security was created in September 2019.

Authorities continue to cover up socio-economic problems

The prolonged economic crisis continues in Turkmenistan, evident, among others, in a continued deficit of basic food items such as bread and eggs. As previously reported on the Monitor, the authorities continue their attempts to cover up the scope and impact of the crisis. For example, at a government meeting held in January 2020, the president again called for reinforced measures to identify foreign sale channels to market “surplus” food products supposedly produced in the country. This message was widely disseminated by the state Turkmenistan Today news agency, while state media have ignored the problem of the lack of basic food items.

The authorities also seek to prevent information about socio-economic problems from reaching foreign-based outlets that report independently about the situation in the country. An example of this was seen at the start of the heating season in November 2019. After the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that the heating was not working in schools and kindergartens in several districts of the Lebap region and children were freezing, education authorities carried out inspections of the heating systems in these institutions. They were accompanied by officials from the national security services, who reportedly warned school representatives not to share information about the heating problems discovered.

Citizens arbitrarily barred from leaving the country

Turkmenistani authorities arbitrarily restrict the right to leave the country and blacklist citizens for travel abroad. Among those blacklisted for travel are individuals who have publicly criticised the authorities and are considered “disloyal” to the regime, as well as their family members. In recent months, there has also been a growing number of cases in which people on their way to study or work abroad have been denied the right to leave the country, without receiving any explanation for this. This development is linked to government fears about growing opposition to its policies among Turkmenistani diaspora communities abroad, who have more opportunities than citizens at home to gain, share and act on independent information about the situation in Turkmenistan. For example, abroad, Turkmenistani citizens can access websites that are blocked in Turkmenistan, discuss the situation in their home country more openly with fellow citizens and safely contact exiled human rights and opposition groups. As covered before on the Monitor, the authorities have also recruited informants within the sizeable community of Turkmenistani citizens who reside in Turkey, in order to monitor and report “suspicious behaviour” on the part of their fellow citizens.

In November 2019, the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported that on average 20-30 people were prevented from leaving the country for each Istanbul-bound flight from Ashgabat airport. In January 2020, new cases were reported by TIHR and other exiled sources.

TIHR has also learned about cases in which those individuals who are barred from leaving the country but who have connections at the migration services were assisted in exchange for bribes. Thus, such citizens have been asked to pay bribes of several thousand US dollars to regain the right to travel abroad.

Citizens turn to foreign-based outlets to highlight their plight

Due to the restrictive free speech climate in the country, citizens facing injustices sometimes view appeals to independent Turkmenistan-covering outlets based abroad as the only avenue to draw attention to their plight.

In a recent example, in January 2020, the Turkmen News site published a letter from employees of Turkmenistan Airlines who requested help to highlight their difficult situation. The authors of the letter wrote that they and their families were pressured to leave their dorm in Ashgabat where they were living, as it was due to be demolished by the authorities to make way for an alley, which left them with nowhere else to go. Thus, they risked becoming homeless. TIHR, IPHR and other human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern about the failure of the Turkmenistani authorities to grant appropriate alternative housing or compensation to people who are evicted from houses that are demolished as part of government construction projects.

TIHR has also received and published letters from readers in Turkmenistan, who have requested help to draw attention to their problems. For example, in September 2019, it published letters from readers about corruption in the healthcare and education systems in the country.