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Made To Face The Music

Not even the widely reputed guitar-playing skills of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov could deflect unpleasant questions about torture and murder.
Not even the widely reputed guitar-playing skills of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov could deflect unpleasant questions about torture and murder.
RFE/RL’s 19 language services are accustomed to taking hits from government officials in the countries in which they operate, whether it’s the occasional snide remark from Russia’s Vladimir Putin or mock RFE/RL websites erected by autocratic rulers in Iran and Uzbekistan.

But last Friday, journalists from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlyk, were given the rare pleasure of hearing their nation’s deputy foreign minister having to dodge and dissemble under the spotlight of a human rights inquiry at the UN. During a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Committee, experts grilled a Turkmen delegation on its government’s treatment of independent press organizations, including Radio Azatlyk.

Friday’s hearing was long overdue. After Turkmenistan signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997, it was required to submit a report on its compliance with the treaty by 1998. Ashgabat turned out to be a little bit behind -- 14 years, in fact -- in filing its report.

When questioners from the UN committee turned their attention to the status of independent media outlets like RFE/RL, Turkmenistan’s representatives got defensive.

“The people regularly broadcast reports on events that take place in Turkmenistan, about human rights, for example, and they share their opinions. It’s fine for them to do so,” Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minster Vepa Hadjiyev told the committee. “However, when it comes to journalism, that is somewhat different. People are allowed to collect information and disseminate it. Radio Azatlyk has the right to do so.”

This must come as news to RFE/RL correspondent Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, who was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in October 2011 on false charges that he had aided in the attempted suicide of a family member. The government's scurrilous allegations were widely believed to be connected to Yazkuliyev's reporting about an arms depot explosion that killed dozens in the Turkmen city of Abadan. He was later pardoned and released only after complaints from international advocacy organizations and intense diplomatic pressure from the United States led the Turkmen government to reconsider its position.

Yazkuliyev made out relatively lightly compared with Azatlyk contributor Sazak Durdymuradov, who in June 2009 was arrested and confined to a psychiatric institution known as the “Turkmen Gulag,” where he was beaten and psychologically abused by Turkmen authorities.

And if she could still raise her own objections, Ogulsapar Muradova -- an RFE/RL correspondent who died in 2006 while in government detention on trumped-up charges -- might have a thing or two to say about Hadjiyev’s response to UN inquiries.

At Friday’s hearing, Hadjiyev strayed from the official government line on Muradova that she died of “natural causes,” saying instead that Muradova had committed suicide. At the time of her death the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), a human rights group, quoted Muradova’s children as saying that their mother’s body was returned with a “large wound” on her head and bruising along her neck. THF called Muradova’s death a “political assasination.”

Indeed, by many objective measures Turkmenistan remains among the two or three most-restrictive press environments in the world. For the past three years, Freedom House, an American nongovernmental organization that tracks international human rights patterns, has ranked Turkmenistan second to last in its annual index of press freedoms, behind only North Korea. Reporters Sans Frontieres, the French advocacy group for journalists, has ranked Turkmenistan third from the bottom in its annual press freedom index every year for the past five years.

Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the meeting demonstrated that the Turkmen government’s approach to its human rights record is characterized by “complete denial.”

Having declared that RFE/RL was free to report from Turkmenistan, Hadjiyev twisted himself into some tight doublethink knots to rationalize his government’s repression and intimidation of RFE/RL’s courageous in-country stringers and contributors. Riffing on the fact that they work without official government accreditation, Hadjiyev branded Radio Azatlyk’s correspondents as mercenaries and outlaws.

“If they think their actions are journalistic work, then these types of activity are not in accord with the current law.... The Radio Azatlyk broadcasters in Turkmenistan provide false information. They are in it for the money,” Hadjiyev said.

“We have applied for official accreditation for our journalists three times in the last five years,” Radio Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir told Off Mic. “We’re always interested in talking about our accreditation with the government of Turkmenistan, and would obviously welcome any chance our journalists might have to report the news legally, freely, and without fear.”

Tahir was more than a little surprised to hear Hadjiyev’s contention that RFE/RL journalists were “in it for the money.”

“It’s quite difficult to see why any of our professional correspondents would run the risk of imprisonment, torture, and death just for a few bucks,” Tahir said. “Our people work for us because they are committed to the open flow of accurate information and to the construction of a vibrant civil society in Turkmenistan.”

For their part, some panelists on the UN committee appeared largely unconvinced by Hadjiyev’s answers. “In all honesty,” Swedish panelist Krister Thelin told the Turkmen delegation, “there are still areas of concern that remain.”

To say the least.

-- Courtney Brooks and Charles Dameron