The International Partnership for Human Rights, a coalition of European and Central Asian human rights groups, has released a new report this month, Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been praised by Western leaders for increasing Internet access, but it turns out that with the average monthly salary only $285 in Turkmenistan, the $215 monthly Internet fee or even the dollar-an-hour Internet cafe are beyond most people’s budgets. In any event, the Internet is heavily regulated, and there is only one state-run provider, Turkmentelecom, which blocks independents sites like gundogar.org and chrono-tm.org as well as Facebook, Twitter, and Live Journal.
Chinese Huawei Technologies and Finnish-German Nokia Siemens Networks have signed contracts with the country’s Ministry of Communications to upgrade the state-owned mobile network and introduce new services. Yet concerns have been expressed that these companies may agree to assist the Turkmen government in monitoring cell phone and internet use in exchange for lucrative deals, says the study.
Although the report is quite bleak describing heavy police control of the Internet and the cancellation of cell phone service for 2.4 million people when the contract of Russia’s mobile company MTS was not extended, there are some glimmers of hope. Last July, some citizen journalists came forward to try to cover the explosion in Abadan when the authorities tried to cover it up. While a stringer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was jailed for his coverage of Abadan, after a worldwide outcry he was released.
Mobile service has continued to deteriorate, says the report, and recent travelers to Ashgabat confirm difficulties in getting cell phone coverage.
News Briefing Central Asia recently interviewed Vyacheslav Mamedov, head of the Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan based in the Netherlands, who said that the small number of Internet users in Turkmenistan makes it very easy for authorities to control access. With only 1.5 percent of the population online, no particular skills are needed to maintain censorship, says Mamedov: Turkmentelecom simply blacklists undesirables and hands over IP addresses to the Ministry of National Security. Mamedov says Turkmenistan is short of technological experts, since many computer programmers have left the country; he indicated that the government has hired experts from Ukraine, however. State media has also reported assistance from Chinese engineers.