Turkmenistan: Government censorship and intimidation in response to COVID-19 and other recent crises

New briefing paper documents key right trends

Photo by Veni / CC BY 2.0

A new briefing paper prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) documents how the Turkmenistani government uses tactics of control, censorship and intimidation to cover up the real state of affairs in the country, prevent discussion on issues of public interest, and stifle dissent among citizens. The government’s actions in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, a devastating hurricane that recently struck the country, as well as worsening food shortages affecting the impoverished population illustrate these tactics.

As COVID-19 has spread across the world, the Turkmenistani government has insisted that there are no registered cases of infections in the country, although independent sources have reported about such cases. At the same time, it has been slow in facilitating a World Health Organization (WHO) mission to look into the COVID-19 situation in the country. The authorities have also sought to prevent discussion about the virus and supposedly “prevent panic” over the pandemic and have detained and threatened people speaking about COVID-19 related issues in public places.

In a similar vein, the authorities have attempted to cover up the destruction caused by a hurricane that hit parts of the country in April 2020 and the worsening food shortages that have resulted from the protracted economic crisis and restrictions on transportation introduced because of COVID-19. The authorities have prevented citizens from learning about the real state of affairs on these and other issues by rigidly controlling state media, obstructing access to foreign sources of information, and discrediting and attacking independent Turkmenistan-covering outlets based abroad. They have also sought to track down and intimidate individuals believed to have provided information to foreign-based outlets or to have used censorship circumvention tools to visit regime-critical websites that are blocked in the country.

Following the April 2020 hurricane, several dozen people were detained on accusation of sharing photos and video clips of the havoc caused by this natural disaster with relatives and other contacts abroad, and some of them faced charges of allegedly defaming and insulting authorities. The authorities have also warned residents that those who spread “slanderous” foreign media and social media reports about the current food shortages will be “held liable”, while using both persuasion and intimidation to quell spontaneous protests by residents venting their frustration at the decreasing availability of flour and other basic food staples at affordable prices.

The Turkmenistani authorities have called on citizens to inform them about fellow citizens who spread “rumours” about the situation in the country and have recruited designated informants to report on people who engage in “suspicious” behaviour on- and offline. Independent journalists, civil society activists and other government critics face a high risk of persecution, including politically motivated imprisonment. Several dozen individuals imprisoned on such grounds remain disappeared within the country’s prison system.

The authorities have continued forcibly mass mobilizing residents for regime-praising events at the threat of repercussions, even after the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This practice runs counter to the right to freedom of assembly and has been criticized by international human rights experts.

While new travel restrictions were introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities already previously barred citizens from travelling abroad on arbitrary grounds. In the past year, such bans have particularly affected people on their way to work or study in Turkey as the government has become increasingly fearful of opposition to its policies among the large Turkmenistani diaspora community in this country.

The IPHR-TIHR briefing paper provides more details on these and other recent key trends in the protection of fundamental rights in Turkmenistan. The paper has been submitted to the EU ahead of its annual human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan, planned to take place this month through virtual means.

The briefing paper can be downloaded here.