In an August 8 letter to the president of the Olympic Council of Asia, the global rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Vienna-based NGO Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) cited the case of RFE/RL Turkmen contributor Soltan Achilova as evidence of the need to ensure that the rights of journalists and activists are protected during the forthcoming Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan.
Writing to Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the two organizations asked the Council to urge the Turkmen government to ensure that all journalists are able to work without fear of retaliation ahead of, during, and after the games, which are to take place in Turkmenistan September 17-27. Citing the clampdown on independent voices and the unjust imprisonment of journalists, the organizations declared, “The [Turkmen] government’s poor press freedom and human rights record cannot be reconciled with the Olympic Charter’s principles on press freedoms and on human dignity.”
Achilova, 67, a veteran contributor to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, received a warning and a death threat while en route to photograph a public event in Ashgabat in late July from a man who identified himself as a police officer and said he was tasked with monitoring her activities. The previous week, she said a man tried to steal her cellphone as she was about to take a photo. The attacks follow several incidents of harassment, including physical assaults, connected with her journalism in November 2016.
The attacks against Achilova are part of a government campaign targeting members of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk Radiosy. Video journalist Saparmamed Nespeskuliev, who is serving a three-year prison sentence, was held incognito and jailed on fabricated charges in July, 2015. Contributor Khudayberdy Allashov was detained for three months in December, 2016 on politically motivated charges of possessing chewing tobacco.
Turkmenistan is consistently ranked together with North Korea at the bottom of Freedom House’s annual press freedom survey.
Because of political conditions, RFE/RL has no bureau inside Turkmenistan, instead relying on a local network of contributors to provide the country’s only Turkmen-language alternative to state-controlled media.