Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance journalist and contributor to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, is reportedly being held in in a temporary detention facility in the country’s western Balkan Province.
Nepeskuliev went missing July 7 while researching a story in Avaza, a city on the shores of the Caspian Sea, according to information provided by his family to the website Alternative Turkmen News (ATN), a Netherlands-based NGO that also publishes Nepeskuliev’s reporting.
When he didn’t return from his trip as planned, relatives contacted the police and were finally told on July 28 that he was in custody in the city of Akdash (about 20 miles away from Avaza) on charges of illegal drug possession. His family denied the allegations, and colleagues and press freedom advocates say his detention is likely in retaliation for his work as a journalist.
RFE/RL's requests to authorities to confirm his whereabouts have gone unanswered.
Nepeskuliev’s reporting focuses on infrastructure problems and the difficulties average Turkmen citizens face accessing healthcare and other public services. He also reports on corruption, most recently on the lavish villas owned by some public officials. His work includes photo and video reportage that is extremely popular with audiences in Turkmenistan, colleagues say.
“We believe our freelance reporter Saparmamed Nepeskuliev is being unlawfully detained in connection with his reporting. We are deeply concerned about his whereabouts and safety, and call on the Turkmen government to guarantee his well-being and release him," said RFE/RL Regional Director for Central Asia Abbas Djavadi.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch have also called on Turkmen authorities to release Nepeskuliev.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed societies on earth, ranking 197th out of 199 countries surveyed in Freedom House's 2015 Freedom of the Press Index. RFE/RL Turkmen Service journalists have always been targets for arbitrary detention and harassment by authorities, but Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir says they have experienced a surge of harassment in recent months, including what he describes as “Maoist” interrogations and public denunciations of journalists by officials.
“Just within the last six months, two other reporters have been detained and questioned repeatedly by police, and two had their mobile phone service cut off for two weeks,” said Tahir.
In June, Turkmen Service Journalist Osmankuly Hallyev, who has been a freelance contributor since 2006, resigned from his position, citing an unprecedented campaign of intimidation waged against him by the authorities. In his letter of resignation, Hallyev, who has published many investigative stories during his time with RFE/RL, said he had been repeatedly interrogated by the country’s anti-terrorist police, pressed to reveal his sources, and publicly denounced by local authorities and community leaders at a meeting he was summoned to at an official’s home.
"I understand that those people were invited to the meeting to disgrace me and frighten me in public," said Hallyev. He was told if he did not stop his cooperation with RFE/RL he could be charged with harming the country's reputation, a crime that can carry a prison sentence.
Hallyev began reporting for the service again in July, however, saying the harassment did not stop even after he resigned, and reasoning that if he and his family will be under pressure regardless, he would rather do his job.
Tahir attributes the recent escalation of threats and harassment of service journalists to the service’s increasing visibility and popularity among audiences in Turkmenistan. The service attracts 143,000 monthly visits to its web and mobile sites, and has over 110,000 Facebook fans, making it the most popular Facebook page in Turkmen language.
“I believe the authorities are unhappy about the approach we’ve taken in our reporting—talking to average people about real issues,” said Tahir. “And the more we do it, the more people are losing their fear and are willing to talk to us on camera, which was never the case before.”