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RFE/RL's Turkmen Service Opens Windows (and fixes them, too)

Turkmenistan -- Turkmen dancers in costumes in Ashgabat. October 15, 2013
Turkmenistan -- Turkmen dancers in costumes in Ashgabat. October 15, 2013
In a country with no free press, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Language Service plays a unique role, enabling people to have their voices heard in a region where they are accustomed to being silenced. Though the service has been reporting for 60 years, recent innovations have produced new content, new audiences, and more impact.

Known in Turkmenistan as Radio Azatlyk, the service is based in Prague since Turkmen authorities have not permitted it to have a local bureau inside the country. Reporting is done primarily by stringers in Turkmenistan, who report stories back for final production in Prague on broadcast, Internet, and mobile platforms.

The Azatlyk website is regularly blocked by the government, so Turkmen audiences must use proxies to access the content. Despite such impediments, approximately 8000 users visit the website and another 7,000 – 9,000 visit the mobile site daily. The service encourages audience participation and comments, another novelty in Turkmenistan, with Facebook and YouTube.

Additionally, in this most censored of societies, Azatlyk has succeeded in coaxing audience members themselves to speak up and contribute to the news. Three weekly broadcast shows with pre-announced topics address urban, youth and diaspora themes and enable listeners to send in opinions and comments that are then addressed on air. Blogs on the Azatlyk site and social media ensure that conversations continue online.

The service's photogalleries offer new glimpses of a long-closed society.

Sophisticated video reporting, including face-to-face interviews, has broken another barrier. According to Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir, “Just two years ago, people wouldn’t give us phone interviews, let alone meet correspondents. Now we can get two to three interviews a day. People are ready to show their faces.”

Tahir attributes this new relationship with his audience to a shift in Azatlyk’s coverage away from abstract political debates to tangible issues- including social services, electricity shortages and bribes - that affect ordinary people directly. “We’re more engaged,” he said.

In one recent example, Azatlyk reported on an entire village that was cut off from access to Ashgabat, the capital city, because residents lacked proper permits to work there. In a report on the government’s response to house fires in a residential area of the capital, Azatlyk took a close look at the work of local fire departments finding that, among other problems, fire trucks showed up at the scene without water.

In 2012, Azatlyk turned a timely spotlight on the country’s educational system after noticing that, of 110,000 Turkmen students who graduate from high school, only 9,000 of them go on to attend universities, whether domestic or abroad. Finding that students lacked practical knowledge about admission requirements and procedures, deadlines and scholarship programs, it launched a project to amass the information in online databases for high-school audiences. The project also provided an online forum for students to exchange information and experiences and submit additional information requests.

The service has also begun operating a public service hotline of sorts, using a Moscow line to enable listeners to report problems and seek support. In one instance, a widowed woman called in to report the disrepair of her government housing, which was so severe that an ambulance was unable to reach her house to treat her sick child. Her appeals to authorities went unanswered, but after Radio Azatlyk reported the story, the area was soon cleaned up.

Radio Azatlyk’s role in Turkmenistan is not without risk. Correspondents are cautious with their bylines and change SIM cards to elude surveillance, which is constant. They are called in for “consultations” with authorities as a form of intimidation that can entail warnings and threats. Correspondent Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was recently imprisoned for 15 days for his reporting before international pressure led to his release and return to work.

Turkmenistan has long been designated by Freedom House, the international rights monitor, as among the “Worst of the Worst” countries in the world with regard to basic freedoms.

Tahir reflected on the changes the service has made, but then considered the strides his listeners have taken, too. “They are the brave ones,” he said. “Very, very brave.”

- Samantha Phillips