Five years have passed since the death in prison of journalist and human rights activist Ogulsapar Muradova, the Kazakh Service of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reminds us. Yet the Turkmen authorities continue to refuse to permit an independent investigation into the circumstances of her death.
Muradova was a correspondent for the Turkmen Service of RFE/RL. She and two other Turkmen reporters and human rights activist who remain in prison — Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Hajiev– helped a French film crew to make a documentary about life in isolated Turkmenistan. It wasn’t long before the secret police found out and arrested them all. Muradova was accused of “espionage” and “conspiracy” and then all three were charged with trumped-up possession of weapons and sentenced to long terms.
Then on September 14, 2006, several agents of the Turkmen Ministry of National Security came to Muradov’s apartment and informed her children of her death in prison.
A WikiLeaks cable alleged to have been sent September 28, 2006 from Sofia reveals what human rights groups already knew: that Muradova’s relatives, living as asylees in Bulgaria, said that the US Embassy in Ashgabat was “instrumental” in getting her children access to their mother’s body. They believed the Turkmen government had not wanted to release it because Muradova was tortured to death.
Anadurdy Hajiev, brother of Sapardurdy and co-founder of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, wrote an article for the Washington Post in December 2006, describing how Muradova’s children asked the US Embassy for intervention. They finally received their mother’s body, showing a head wound, marks of strangulation, a broken leg, and injection punctures. The children gave US Embassy representatives permission to examine and photograph the body.
Yet to this day, the US has still not released the photos, although the family requested that they be given to human rights organizations. Even WikiLeaks has not been able to shed light on this mystery. As Hajiev wrote at that time:
Some suspect Western diplomats of a double game: trading free expression in my country for the possibility of using an air base there for NATO operations in Afghanistan. As for the murder, this human rights violation — is it to be forgotten? Will no one be held responsible? US diplomats did what they could; another cable from 2008 reveals that US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher raised the issue of accreditation for RFE/RL journalists in Turkmenistan and an end to their harassment, but was told that they weren’t qualified by Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Boucher.
This week, Dunja Mijatovi?, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is making her first visit to Turkmenistan offering assistance in liberalizing media legislation and calling for greater Internet access. Likely she is privately raising the cases of imprisoned journalists. Publicly, however, her strategy is to engage the Turkmen leadership by taking seriously their proclamations of intentions to reform their media.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been chronically unhappy with his media executives, constantly reprimanding or even firing them. Despite — or because of — heavy state control, Turkmen TV just can’t seem to portray the Turkmen leader’s purported reforms in a sufficiently glowing light.
Although OSCE has a mission in Ashgabat, its has had little scope for assisting would-be independent reporters, even if they were sufficiently brave enough to appear. Rather than publicly condemn Ashgabat’s harassment of reporters and draconian censorship of media, however, such as after the explosion in Abadan in July, Mijatovi? has evidently decided to take a cooperative approach.
“During my meetings in Turkmenistan, I received assurances from all high officials that the government is ready to engage in constructive dialogue with my Office and bring our co-operation to a new level, including in the field of the liberalization of the media legal environment,” Mijatovi? said, adding that OSCE hoped to see “tangible results”
Drafting media laws is an old game in Central Asia (like NGO laws). It enables despotic governments to endlessly proclaim their abstract intentions, collect foreign grants, and hold seminars with the usual well-traveled foreign experts — even as implementation never happens and reporters go on being jailed. Media freedom generally doesn’t improve in these countries until the government is ready to share power, and the training of government apparatchiks in these foreign-sponsored exercises rarely leads to independence occurring spontaneously through new technology.
Investigation into the death a reporter who tried to make a film about life under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov — and the release of the photographs of her tortured corpse — would do more to embolden free media than a seminar, but it’s not likely to happen any time soon.