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It is difficult to get information about Turkmenistan, especially for its inhabitants. News from Turkmenistan is often misinterpreted and information circulating domestically is different from that reaching abroad. So how do people inform themselves in Turkmenistan? The following analysis appeared in the Russian original on CABAR.Asia.

Turkmenistan’s government is characterized by a questionable relationship to freedom of the press and freedom of information, among other characteristics of authoritarian rule. There is strict media censorship, filming or photographing in public attracts the displeasure of the police and public expressions of opinion can have serious consequences.

State media and their henchmen

Five older men sit in a television studio with a bright animation in the background. The men’s hands rest reverently on the extravagantly shaped table. One of them lists the economic successes of Turkmenistan in a reserved but nevertheless enthusiastic way. His narrative includes factories and businesses, but also sports facilities, cotton cultivation and libraries. After just a few minutes, the impression is created that the participants are reading an endless and meaningless text. This is what a common “talk show” on Turkmen television looks like.

The Turkmen press is not much better off. To Turkmen newspaper readers, every new issue of a newspaper must look like a copy of the previous one. For example, the Russian-language newspaper “Neutrales Turkmenistan”, which has had a presidential portrait on its front page for a decade. In terms of content, the press offers such twists: “The success of cotton cultivation is the result of general agricultural efforts and the logical result of broad structural reforms initiated and implemented in this sector by President Gurbanguly Berdimuchammedov”.

The state Turkmen media are a direct legacy from the Soviet era. But unlike Soviet journalism, which allowed at least a touch of polemic, the Turkmen media degenerate into the mouthpiece of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

The exception Owazy

Although public propaganda is omnipresent, the ineffectiveness of the strategic communication of state media is just as obvious. It has hardly anything to do with the everyday life of citizens. One exception is the particularly popular music channel “Turkmen Owazy” (Turkmen voice). Unlike most television and radio stations, Turkmen Owazy maintains direct contact with its listeners and viewers, for example through call-in competitions. With a radio program listeners can call in the live transmission and with plays like for example guess the melody play. Turkmen youths recognize a hit after literally three notes, the winners can determine the next piece of music. The “soft” theme of the station therefore understandably allows more room for lively and organic communication.

In general, however, the state media are characterised above all by an impenetrable language and content without topicality. The discourse conveyed has a forced effect and is not accepted by the readers. So-called “government-friendly media” also preserve this official narrative and tend to shed light on “soft” topics. In terms of status, they are independent, but often appear to be henchmen of the state media: for example, with an information campaign about the abundance of food as a counterweight to reports by foreign media reporting on the economic crisis in Turkmenistan.

In the nineties the joke went around deciphering the acronym TMT (Turkmen State Television) as “your dead television” (Rus. for “tvoj mertvyj televisor”). Later, the television channels were renamed and given more sublime names, such as “Golden Age” (Altyn Asyr), “Youth” (Ýaşlyk) or “Heritage” (Miras). Television, however, could not be revived and white noise still remains in the country’s media landscape.

Filtered or blocked foreign media

Not so long ago, satellite dishes on the roofs of Turkmenistan were considered to be a landmark of the country, pointing in all directions. They were a symbol of the Turkmen thirst for information. In the 1990s, the Turkmen population discovered this new way of gathering information. The possession of such a satellite dish and receiver made it possible to receive a large number of foreign television channels. Against the background of unsatisfactory state media, Russian and Turkish channels in particular enjoyed great popularity.

In contrast to television, the foreign press is not particularly popular in Turkmenistan. In 2005, Turkmen President Saparmurat Nyasov banned the import and distribution of foreign press titles. Popular TV program guides and also the “Times of Central Asia” were banned in this way. Apparently, the Turkmen state apparatus can control the distribution of print products without much effort. On the other hand, foreign, mostly Russian, entertainment media and books can still be bought on the markets in the cities.

Dismantled satellite dishes

In addition to blocking Internet sites, the Turkmen government also limits access to foreign media, most recently by dismantling satellite dishes. According to official figures, this has aesthetic reasons, according to the president’s taste. Those in power have repeatedly indicated that the satellite dishes disfigure the sight of the capital. For the same reason, air conditioners have been removed from the facades of houses in recent years.

In Ashgabat as in all of Turkmenistan satellite dishes are ubiquitous

There are two possible explanations for this aesthetic policy. President Berdimukhammedov often flies by helicopter over the Turkmen capital. He may not have liked the many satellite dishes on the houses, or the fact that information from abroad is not subject to state censorship. This is exactly how the realization of such projects, mainly in the capital Ashgabat, could be explained.

In addition, for a few years now there has been a state service for the reception of foreign broadcasters at a modest price (about 2.80 dollars according to the official rate, 0.50 dollars according to the black market rate). Russian channels, international news channels (e.g. Euronews or BBC), Turkish channels and various entertainment channels are offered here in one package. The Turkmen government may not be trying to restrict access to foreign media as a whole, but rather to limit coverage of negative events in the country.

Among these foreign media there are also so-called “oppositional media”, mostly projects of civil rights organisations or foreign foundations. These are predominantly online formats, including pages on social networks. Access to these media is very limited.

Citizens who visit inflammatory websites are persecuted by the secret services. Despite the spread of VPN connections and the circumvention of blockades, the opposition websites do not attract mass attention due to this risk. When Turkmen discuss the news, they always try not to mention such sources, which keeps the opposition media relatively unknown and their audience small. In addition, the Turkmen government launched a fight against VPN connections on 20 January.

Clever Internet users

The Internet is the most vulnerable place for communication in Turkmenistan. In Internet freedom ratings, the country is usually at the bottom of the list. President Berdimukhammedov is said to have improved Internet access. Firstly, he weakened access restrictions; secondly, Internet access became cheaper and faster after he came to power in 2006, and mobile Internet became widespread. Third, Turkmenistan under Berdimukhamedov experienced a period of relative material prosperity that allowed many people to buy an Internet-enabled mobile phone.

In view of the many bans, Turkmen Internet users are demonstrating a high degree of adaptability. In the past, blocking a social network or a messenger meant that users simply switched to other platforms on a massive scale. In 2013, the very popular messenger service WhatsApp was blocked. Internet users quickly switched to the Chinese messenger WeChat, which was soon blocked. Next, the Turkmen people looked for shelter on the Korean-Japanese Messenger LINE, which was eventually blocked but lasted longer than its predecessors. Today, IMO is the most widely used social media platform in Turkmenistan.

More and more Internet users now know how to avoid blockages. The majority of blocked and blocked content is still accessible to many users. Thanks to technologies such as TOR or VPN, they can use such popular Internet services as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Even though the Turkmen government is pursuing a consistent policy of blocking popular social media worldwide, Turkmen Internet users continue to find alternative methods to circumvent blockages.

Especially the younger generation is looking for ways to express themselves on platforms like Instagram. This discrepancy between the tasks and results of state blocking policy leads to some bizarre constellations. In the Turkmen segment of Instagram, for example, there are more or less people associated with the state, as well as cultural practitioners who call on their audiences to follow them. The impression is created that everyone is pretending that the pages are not blocked so as not to attract the attention of the judiciary. Social media in Turkmenistan currently represent an exciting field of research because they are permeated by social processes that are not visible in the public sphere.

Rumours at all levels

As in any state with no freedom of the press, rumours that spread throughout the country at different speeds, depending on their relevance, gain in importance.

The most popular rumours concern the everyday problems of the average Turkmen: the dollar exchange rate, price increases or any bans. The state does not spoil its citizens with clear information, and the people of Turkmenistan live largely in ignorance of domestic affairs. Rumors pop up like bubbles and wander through houses, office buildings, markets and backyards. It can be a relative, a friend, a taxi driver, a salesman or even a district policeman who passes on a new rumour.

Rumors often announce rather unpleasant innovations or even shocking events. So the fall of the Manat course and the planned increase of the gasoline prices to the first January 2015 were accompanied by the rumor that the Manat course would fall still further and fuels would continue to increase in price. This led to huge queues forming at petrol stations shortly before the New Year holidays, but the Manat rate and petrol prices ultimately remained stable.

But one should not think that rumors in Turkmenistan are always far away from the truth. On the contrary, the rumours are preceded by an excellent intuition, which the population has developed through the hunger for information that has been going on for years. The people in Turkmenistan, who are not in direct communication with those in power, must derive their own news from experience, observations and leaked information. Of course, rumours and word of mouth should not be taken at face value, but rather interpreted as a kind of social barometer of mood, from which social connections and processes can be read.

Two parallel media worlds

Just like the Karakum desert, at first glance without any life, the Turkmen media landscape proves to be full of life on closer inspection. Government loyal media, censorship and a whole series of prohibitions cannot achieve their communicative goal. Communication processes in Turkmen society are adaptable and function largely not thanks to, but despite, the state.

The Turkmen government is not currently considering any reforms in the field of information and communication and is thus increasingly displacing public social discourses. In this way, two worlds of information are emerging in Turkmenistan. In one, sterility and a dead order prevail, in the other chaos and communicative productivity. The citizens of Turkmenistan are at home in both worlds, but they cannot move in both at the same time.