WASHINGTON – On the occasion of Turkmenistan’s Independence Day, demonstrators gathered in front of the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C. on October 28 to draw attention to the country's abysmal record on media freedom.
The imprisonment of RFE/RL contributor Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, held incommunicado since July, 2015, was among the cases championed during the rally organized by the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF). An RSF representative called on Turkmen authorities “to make [Nepeskuliev’s] whereabouts known, and release him immediately so that he can return to be with his family.” RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has called Nepeskuliev’s imprisonment “outrageous and thoroughly inhumane,” while seven U.S. Congressmen, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (R-CA), urged Nepeskuliev's release in a July 2016 letter to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
Nepeskuliev began working for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in 2015, boldly producing video reports documenting decrepit infrastructure, financial hardship, economic inequality, and depressed schools in the country’s western region.
He disappeared on July 7, 2015 in Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea resort city of Avaza, and was held incommunicado before a Turkmen court, in a closed session on August 31, 2015, sentenced him to three years in prison on narcotics charges that rights groups believe were fabricated in retaliation for his reporting.
In an incident earlier this month, veteran Turkmen Service freelancer Soltan Achilova was questioned and then physically attacked by plainclothes men she believed to be from the state security service while taking photos of persons queuing outside of a shop in the capital, Ashgabat.
In 2006, Ogulsapar Muradova, a correspondent for RFE/RL and VOA, died under unexplained circumstances in a Turkmen prison. RFE/RL has neither a bureau nor accredited journalists in Turkmenistan, and its website is permanently blocked, obliging visitors to use proxy servers to access the site. Stringers and freelancers have long been subject to surveillance, but beginning in 2014, and coinciding with a dramatic rise in the Turkmen Service's online traffic, authorities intensified their pressure on correspondents, targeting them and their family members to interrogations, public denunciations, false criminal accusations, and incommunicado detentions.
In the twelve months to August 2016, the Service’s website logged an average of nearly 630,000 visits and one million page views per month, while its Facebook page has more than 162,000 fans.
Turkmenistan is consistently ranked as one of the worst violators of press freedom by media monitoring groups, including Freedom House and RSF.