Secret Police Target Mobile Phones

It would seem the Turkmen authorities already had enough control over citizens’ communications, given how they shut off Russia’s MTS service last December, depriving 2.4 million people of cell phone access. While many rushed to try to sign up with the national government provider, they faced long lines and poor service.

News Briefing Central Asia now reports that Turkmenistan’s Ministry of National Security is stepping up its already intense surveillance of its citizens’ use of mobile phones.

At the beginning of November, National Security Minister Yaylym Berdiev outlined the steps his agency was taking to “maintain social stability, unity and harmony”. No details of these measures were released, but commentators in the country already see signs of a further clampdown in this already highly controlled society.When Turkmenistan marked 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union in late October, participants in parades and other public events were banned from using mobile phones.

According to a local rights activist, the measure was not a one-off.“The ban on using mobile phones, supposedly in the interests of public security, has been in place for the last six months,” he said. “It came to the fore after the explosions in Abadan, when people used the mobile internet to report the news.”Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a freelance reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was first warned for his independent coverage of the munitions depot explosion in Abadan, then arrested and sentenced.

Surprisingly, given Turkmenistan’s track record for keeping political prisoners for prolonged periods, after outcry from international media rights organizations, Western governments, and fellow Turkmens, Yazkuliyev was released under an amnesty tied to the 20th anniversary of independence. Others may have not fared as well but there is little information about them; reports at the time indicated authorities were seizing cell phones and video cameras and detaining citizen reporters.