WASHINGTON - At the opening of a new hospital in November, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said no COVID-19 cases had been reported in Turkmenistan thanks to preventative actions.
But social media users and news websites who counter that view are swiftly dealt with, say journalists and observers of the former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told VOA that Turkmenistan has been imposing restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
“This repression, combined with the government’s reckless denial of COVID-19 cases, its failure to provide essential protective equipment to health care workers and ensure availability of medicine, equipment and the like to treat COVID-19 patients have jeopardized public health,” Denber said.
Globally, more than 62 million cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus have been confirmed. While Turkmenistan denies the pandemic has reached its borders, it has imposed measures, including a mask mandate and restrictions on travel and retail, a Turkmen citizen, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told VOA.
“They close bazaars and restrict travel between the regions of the country. The railroad communication is stopped as well, but planes continue flying between the regional centers,” the person, who lives overseas but still visits his home country, said.
Discussion about pandemic
The government has also sought to stifle discussion about the pandemic, including detaining those who speak publicly about COVID-19. Earlier this year, its Foreign Ministry said the U.S. embassy was distorting facts after the embassy issued an alert that it had “received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19” undergoing testing and being placed in quarantine.
VOA attempted to contact Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry for comment, but the email was returned. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment made via its web portal. A VOA request for comment to Turkmenistan's embassy in Washington, D.C., was not returned.
Turkmenistan was already a repressive place for free speech: the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks it as the second-worst country on its global Press Freedom Index.
But Brigitte Dufour, director of the independent International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) in Brussels, Belgium, says authorities have further stepped up repression of critics by intimidating or targeting those who question government policies around the pandemic.
Dufour told VOA that the response to the pandemic contributed to a “reinforced resentment” against authorities, expressed both on social media and through protests. In response, the government has increased pressure on critical voices.
“Recent months have seen growing expressions of discontent on social media, several spontaneous protests inside the country and a wave of anti-government rallies staged by diaspora communities abroad,” Dufour said. In response, Turkmenistan’s national security services have targeted activists abroad, both directly and through their relatives in Turkmenistan, she said.
Earlier this year, Dursoltan Taganova, a migrant worker-turned-activist based in Turkey, was placed in a migration center, pending deportation, after police arrested her at a rally in Istanbul calling for Turkmenistan’s president to resign over the handling of the pandemic.
Taganova was released in October after pressure from rights organizations. But her family in Turkmenistan were harassed and informed that Taganova would be arrested if she returns to her home country, according to the International Partnership for Human Rights.
Farid Tuhbatullin, chair of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), an exile network that collects evidence of rights abuses, told VOA the government also targets those who use social media to speak out against policies.
“The Turkmen special services are identifying those who are trying to transfer information, photos and videos abroad. About 70 people were detained and taken to police stations in the city of Turkmenabat [in May]. At least two of the women detained were subsequently convicted. Nothing is known about the fate of the others,” Tuhbatullin said.
When more than 100 medical workers in Turkmenabat, the second-largest city in Turkmenistan, called on the government to provide more personal protective equipment in July, officials warned that their appeal was “contradictory to the president’s policies” and warned that they might be held accountable, TIHR found.
Access to news blocked
Foreign-based websites and media covering news on Turkmenistan and its handling of the pandemic have been hit by cyberattacks or attempts to block access.
The Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan, which reports in Turkmen, Russian and English, has experienced cyberattacks since 2011, but the attacks intensified in recent months. Journalists at the site, which is part of the TIHR, said they believe the attacks are initiated by Turkmen security services in retaliation for their independent coverage of COVID-19 and other developments.
Like other foreign-based websites, Chronicles of Turkmenistan is accessible only with the help of circumvention tools such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Ak Welsapar, an exiled journalist who runs Erkin Turkmenistan Radio, a YouTube channel with more than 33,000 followers and 18 million views, says he believes authorities were behind a copyright infringement accusation that led to YouTube shutting the channel in September.
“Our radio was the first to inform the Turkmen people about coronavirus from February 8, 2020, and regularly published journalistic materials about COVID-19 and its wide spread in Turkmenistan,” Welsapar, who lives in Sweden, told VOA.
Welspar said the copyright allegation related to his show’s usage of official national television footage and he believes authorities hired proxies in the West to file the complaint.
The journalist has set up a parallel channel and says he hopes YouTube will allow the original one back online in mid-December.
By denying access to independent news or critical voices on social media, Turkmenistan is leaving its citizens in the dark, journalists say.
“Unfortunately, no media in Turkmenistan has been able to report on COVID-19 to warn the public about the disease at this crucial moment,” Welsapar said.