Opening a multimedia window on Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan remains one of the most closed societies in the world, ranked by U.S. based pro-democracy group Freedom House in their 2012 survey as low as countries such as Iran, Belarus, North Korea, and Uzbekistan. Authors of the report say that, in Turkmenistan, “independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression”.

Despite this bad record, there are a few available independent sources providing information about the country.

One of such resource is a multimedia project run by Ruslan and Farid Tuhbatullin, former Turkmenistan residents, currently living in Europe. This project is a hybrid of different media components. We recently spoke to Ruslan Tuhbatullin about it by email.

Net Prophet: Ruslan, what could you say about all the components of your multimedia project? How did it all began? What came first – video, podcasts, or a website? Where did the idea come from? Whose idea it was? Who is shooting video, writing for the web? Do you do it alone or you have a team of fellow journalists? How often do you broadcast? Do you have your sources inside the country? How and where do you get content for the news blocks?

Ruslan Tuhbatullin: I would divide it into two parts: the website and multimedia. The website is run by my father Farid Tukhbatullin, and I do multimedia. The website Chronicles of Turkmenistan has been up since 2006.

My father, Farid Tukhbatullin, is in charge of the website, the platform where you can find original content, information we receive from inside Turkmenistan, from the fields. There is a good network of local brave correspondents inside the country, cooperating with us, but for obvious reasons I can’t name their names.

The website is quite well-known, often referred to by other media outlets. More often than not, we break the news and become the only source of information about the events in Turkmenistan. For example we were the only one who got the story about ammunition explosions at military depots near the village of Abadan in the summer of 2011.

As for multimedia…it is difficult to tell what was first. At the beginning of 2000 I made a couple of cartoons, which I named after the main character – “Bashanya“.

At that time it was something new, unexplored and the cartoons became very popular despite the fact that they were badly drawn.

Then Bashanya was replaced by a new hero Berdoon.

The cartoons was my first experience in creating multimedia content.

Even though these videos turned out to be amateurish, and didn’t get much attention among online audience, it was a good experience for me.

In 2010 I set up a forum-platform “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” (now it is “Open Forum of Turkmenistan“). I’ve been following discussions people had there, and this exchange of information helped me to better understand what kind of information was in demand. Also, through the forum I met young people who later helped me with the project in one way or another. But, anyway, I regarded it to be my hobby, rather than a serious professional activity.

But only this year, with the experience I’ve got, I decided to try myself out more professionally in the field of media and so I joined the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights as a “full-time job”.

I decided to focus on a specific target group – youth generation. Internet, albeit slow, censored and expensive, finally appeared in Turkmenistan. The bulk of Internet users in the country are young people, to whom I am trying to reach out and give the information. There are certain things you have to keep in mind when you work with youngsters: information should not be boring, presentations should be dynamic, and of course you have to add humor – but it’s quite difficult to implement it in a text format of the classical website. So I decided to take advantage of multimedia tools, and started doing the video project, “Chronicles of Turkmenistan”, producing podcasts and running a blog, – producing multi-media content in the form of posts, photo, audio, and video.

I started this project in February this year. There are four episodes published up to the date, and the 5th is in the pipeline. They are all about Turkmenistan, or rather they are a story about the country rulers, but this story is told differently, not the way people are accustomed to learn about Turkmenistan from the news.

For example, how the presidential elections were held, or how to win the country’s multimillion-dollar construction tenders, or what was told in the presentation of the Turkmen delegation to the Council for Human Rights at the UN, In general, I put no limits in choosing a topic. Then I post videos up on YouTube, RuTube and Vimeo, and share information in Turkmenistan through mobile phones among those who have no access to the Internet.

CT videos are really popular. But I have to say that it’s a rather complicated project, for a number of reasons. Firstly, assembling a video is a laborious process, given that I am completely on my own – I am screenwriter, cameraman, editor and broadcaster! Thus, production process takes much more time than I would like it to. Another challenge is that it is very difficult to find any video report, or a recorded program of Turkmen TV, which I would need to include in the video.

Unfortunately, there are no downloads of Turkmen TV programs online, and the signals of a satellite that broadcast Turkmen TV channels are not possible to get in Western Europe.

I wish I could shoot in Turkmenistan, but I very much doubt they would let me in.

CT Podcast– is a new audio project. Since April 2012, it is a weekly edition. Each one, lasting on average 10 minutes, is a news report on Turkmenistan, a compilation from various sources, including official ones. I think it is convenient for those who have little time to go to a bunch of sites and look for news about the country. And podcasts can be listened to either online or by downloading to music player or mobile phone to listen to on the road. This is a new field for me, and not everything goes smoothly, but I’m learning by doing, learning from my own mistakes – to tell you the truth.

The blog was initially created as a backup for the main website, which was inaccessible after being attacked by hackers. After we fixed the problem and got the website back online, I decided to keep the blog as just my personal blog.

In blog posts, as opposed to the website, I can share my own opinions, my view of each particular situation in different spheres of life. Also, the blog is the platform to post the content that doesn’t fit the format of the main website, share links and publish feedback from the readers. I use it to conduct polls on different topics, to keep in touch to reach out to people.

In the future, I would want to use more social networks, which are so popular among the young citizens of Turkmenistan. But, on the other hand, I have to be really careful, since they can be dangerous for those who live in Turkmenistan – bad guys can sign up for a group under fake names. I do not want to harm anyone.

NP: Is there anyone who supports your project financially?

RT: Sure. The main activities of the project are supported by The National Endowment for Democracy, The Open Society Institute, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

NP: Is there any online platform, which you see as your competitor?

RT: There is a known site Gundogar. I think this is the only news resource working exclusively on Turkmenistan, beside us. (There are other news websites that work on the entire Central Asian region).

And there is no competition at all in the field of multimedia. I’d really like it if someone started doing something similar. Healthy competition is always a good, stimulating thing, although I would not perceive it as a competition, but rather as a partner, and I would gladly help to put them on the right track, and share my experience.

NP: How difficult or dangerous is it to promote the content of the website? Who is your audience? Is it accessible in Turkmenistan? RT: We get conflicting information about the accessibility of the website in Turkmenistan. Some claims that the site is accessible; some claims that it has been blocked and readers have to use proxy servers to bypass the blockage. Therefore, it’s difficult to estimate how many readers we get inside the country. But I can tell exactly that a lot of the traffic to the blog comes from Turkmenistan. Many readers have come from other countries, but again it is not clear whether they live in these countries, or simply use a proxy server.

NP: What about yourself? What is your area of expertise? When did your career in journalism start? Are you are the only “wordsmith” in your family? Why and when did you leave Turkmenistan?

RT: My career in journalism started in January this year, so it’s just a five-month-young career :)

I had no previous experience and never studied journalism. I’ve always been interested in the subject though – some things I learned on the Internet, some things I learned at the TOL training, and some things I got simply by intuition. My father – editor-in-chief of CT, is an irrigation engineer by training, but it is already 20 years since he started working in the field of human rights, and he too never had any journalistic education.

I left Turkmenistan in 2001, when I was 16 years old. I spent three years in Russia, but Russia was not a safe place either. For example, the opposition leader Guliyev Abdy, who lived at that time in the outskirt of Moscow, was severely beaten. Turkmen security services were suspected of being involved in the case, so we (the family) had to leave the country and move further. In 2004, I (and the entire family) was granted political asylum in Austria, where we live to this day.