WASHINGTON -- A statement by Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry claiming there is no persecution of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists, made two days before veteran correspondent Soltan Achilova was violently assaulted in the latest of eight such incidents targeting her over the last year, has been condemned by RFE/RL.
Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hadjiyev said at a hearing of the UN Human Rights Council on Turkmenistan in Geneva on May 7 that "the fact that Radio Liberty correspondents work freely in the country" proves that there is media freedom in Turkmenistan. Hadjiyev added that contributors to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service report information “without any restrictions, without any harassment or persecution.”
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent, citing the violent attack on Achilova, called the minister’s statement “outrageous and offensive.”
“Six of our correspondents quit their jobs between 2014 and 2016 because of a deliberate, state-sponsored campaign of intimidation and abuse that targeted them because of their reporting,” Kent said. “Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, another correspondent, is serving a three-year prison sentence on narcotics charges that we believe are bogus and brought in retaliation for his journalism, and other RFE/RL correspondents and their family members have faced prison, torture, and psychological abuse because of their work."
On May 9, Achilova, 68, was on her way to photograph a ceremony at the country’s new WWII memorial complex in Ashgabat when she was stopped by several men in plain clothes she described as security agents, who were soon joined by three police officers. The agents told her it was forbidden to take pictures, and demanded she delete any photographs.
“I refused, and then two agents took me from both sides under my arms and dragged me down the stairs toward a white car,” calling her a “slut and traitor of the motherland,” Achilova told RFE/RL. They forced her inside the car, where they then threatened her with arrest on drug-related charges if she didn’t delete the photographs. When she refused again, insisting she was breaking no law, they seized her camera and deleted the photos themselves. They kept her for two hours, demanding that she stop working for RFE/RL, and then released her.
Achilova, who has worked for RFE/RL reporting the experiences of ordinary Turkmen residents with her photographs for years, has faced an onslaught of physical assaults by police, thugs, and other unidentified assailants.
The attacks drew a reaction from RFE/RL’s Kent last July, who said, “The Turkmen government must immediately put an end to the persecution of Soltan Achilova and assure her safety.”
Turkmenistan is tied with North Korea as the worst country in the world for media freedom, according to Freedom House’s 199-country Freedom of the Press 2017 survey; according to Reporters Without Borders’ 180-country 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan ranks 178, ahead of only Eritrea and North Korea.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk Radiosy, has for 65 years provided an alternative to the state-run media monopoly, providing Turkmen-speaking audiences accurate, locally sourced, and uncensored news and information. In the past year (through April 2018), the Turkmen Service’s website has been visited an average of 1.2 million times every month, while more than 421,000 videos were viewed on the Service’s Facebook page.