In the run-up to the celebration of Independence Day in Turkmenistan, new rules regarding censorship of publications in the print media have been introduced. Regardless of the media outlet, before an article is published it has to be reviewed first by the Ministry which oversees the issues covered in the article.
For instance, if a journalist has written an article about a school, this article must be approved by the Ministry of Education; an article about livestock farmers needs to be approved (or rejected) by the Ministry of Agriculture, etc.
In late December 2012 the Turkmen law on mass media was endorsed. Pursuant to the law, the state is not allowed to censor any media outlets or interfere in their activities. To allegedly confirm his serious intentions in the area of freedom of speech, in February 2013 the Turkmen President refused to be a founder of any print media outlets in the country and stated that the ministries and agencies covering the subject matter of a periodical should become their founders.
In practice, however, there turned out to be no freedom of speech; on the contrary, it was violated. Ministers and heads of agencies feared responsibility and assigned their deputies to "keep a close eye" on media outlets under them "to make sure these reporters do not write anything bad, Allah forbid!" As a result, apart from the management of the editorial board which used to report to the President directly and exercise self-censorship, a further supervising authority emerged – a deputy minister.
In the meantime, since October 2013 the practice of "cross censorship" was introduced. The work of journalists is reviewed not only by the editorial board and relevant deputy minister (let's say, A) but by another ministry (B), whose interests are covered in the article. Or vice versa, if media outlets owned by ministry B are working on a publication on topics regulated by ministry A, it will go to ministry B for approval.
In addition to the Committee on safeguarding state secrets in the print media and the special agencies exercising censorship of the mass media, recently introduced changes are creating an extremely absurd situation for the press, virtually depriving them of the opportunity to perform their news-related and awareness-raising functions.
"I wrote an article about the upcoming opening of the exhibition of Kyrgyzstan artists in Ashgabat but while the article was being approved in the Ministry of Culture it lost its topicality, – one of the reporters complained, – and the article was not published though the Ministry of Culture had eventually approved the text".
Since the law on mass media was endorsed, not a single independent newspaper or magazine has been registered. "Unhampered access of Turkmen residents to newscasts and material from foreign media outlets" guaranteed by the law is non-existent since individuals still have no opportunity to subscribe to foreign periodicals. Almost all the websites publishing criticism of the Turkmen authorities as well as a large majority of social networks are blocked in Turkmenistan.
In almost a year since the new law which banned censorship in the mass media has been in existence it has proved to be not viable, whereas censorship still thrives.