Turkmenistan: News black hole

TurkmenTelekom

The extent of Internet censorship in Turkmenistan confirms the regime’s extremely despotic and paranoid nature. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has yet to keep his promises to develop the Internet and there still has not been any improvement in online freedoms.

Online censorship begins before you connect to the Internet in Turkmenistan because the cost of access is prohibitive for most of the population. And those who can afford it find that TurkmenTelekom, the country’s main telecommunications company, blocks many independent and foreign news websites. The minority with a connection has access to only a highly censored version of the World Wide Web, dubbed “Turkmenet.”

More than 30,000 dollars for a home Internet connection

Despite a slight increase, the percentage of the population with Internet access continues to be very low (barely 7% in 2012). Local governments have no access. In ministries and government agencies in the capital, there are rarely more than three or four computers connected to the Internet. These outrageously low figures are largely the result of the exorbitant tariffs charged by access providers. In 2013, for example, TurkmenTelekom was charging 96,023 manats (33,700 US dollars) a month for an unlimited 34 Mbps connection. The new “home Internet” plan offers a 2048 Kbps connection with a 4Gb data limit for 321 manats (112 dollars) a month. And to top it all, the connection quality is deplorable.

These prohibitive tariffs are made possible by the state-owned TurkmenTelekom’s near monopoly of telecommunications in Turkmenistan. After banning the Russian telephone giant MTS for more than a year and a half, the authorities gave it a new licence to offer services to Turkmen citizens in August 2012. But it has not managed to break TurkmenTelekom’s monopoly or offer better services.

The position that TurkmenTelekom enjoys ensures that the authorities have complete control over the Internet. Anyone wanting to sign up for an ADSL Internet connection or a mobile Internet connection has to provide their passport details. Similarly, ID has to be shown in order to use one of the country’s Internet cafés, which have become very popular.

Mass blocking and avatars

TurkmenTelekom’s monopoly also allows the authorities to control and filter data coming from abroad because it is the only point of connection with the international Internet. The government is able to supervise the entire system carefully thanks to the regular reports its gets from TurkmenTelekom’s CEO.

This highly centralized system simplifies blocking procedures. The government decides which websites should be censored and TurkmenTelekom then blocks access to them. The grounds for blocking a site, if they exist, are kept secret. The large number of sites blocked suggests that the criteria are very strict. They include the sites of many foreign NGOs, government opponents and human rights defenders. Most independent and foreign news sites and the main blog platforms such as Ferghana, Khronika Turkmenistana, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, EurasiaNet, CNN, LiveJournal and WordPress are also inaccessible. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, Gmail, Viber and many other sites and online services are often blocked. TurkmenTelekom has created Turkmen equivalents that can usually only be accessed from inside Turkmenistan.

Any content that reflects badly on the regime or the president is systematically banned. The censorship is so extreme that it often borders on the ridiculous. When the president’s horse fell at the end of a race on 28 April 2013, a vast operation was immediately launched to eliminate all visual, oral or written records. The police went so far as to check the equipment of all the journalists at the event, and the digital devices of all passengers leaving on flights from Ashgabad airport.

Death under torture

The absence of legislation specifically regulating the flow of news and information on the Internet does not limit the harassment of online journalists and netizens. The courts can use provisions of a general nature, such as those that criminalize defaming or insulting the government or president (articles 132 and 133 of the penal code) to convict those posting online. But in most cases they resort to trumped-up charges, as in the case of RFE/RL correspondent Dovletmyrat Yazgulyev, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2011 for “inciting his sister-in-law’s suicide” and was then pardoned a few weeks later.

Arrests are so arbitrary that they sometimes lack any legal basis, as in the case of another RFE/RL correspondent, Rovshen Yazmuhamedov, who was detained from 6 to 22 May 2013 with no explanation from the authorities. His arrest was probably linked to stories he had posted online about potentially sensitive social issues. Shortly before his arrest, he wrote a by-lined report about a young girl who had been banned from school for wearing a headscarf.

Prison conditions in Turkmenistan are appalling. The journalists who have been jailed in connection with their online activities include RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, who died under torture at the Ovodan Depe high security prison on 10 September 2006.