Turkmenistan Launches Image Campaign

Turkmenistan's leaders are planning a public information and internet strategy to spruce up the country's image abroad, but while the presentation of government propaganda messages may improve, analysts say the content is likely to remain unchanged.

At an August 15 cabinet meeting, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov instructed his ministers to help formulate an "objective view" of current events, and told officials to ensure that when policies were implemented, they were accompanied by public information.

To improve the flow of information, Berdymuhammedov proposed setting up an internal network system linking government institutions, the foreign ministry and Turkmen embassies abroad. He also called for more effective use of the internet.

"This work should play a decisive role in shaping the [Turkmen] state's image internationally," he added.

A source in Turkmen government circles said the plan was to set up "information centres" where experts would write PR material and create internet resources aimed at the outside world. Meanwhile, embassies will hold regular presentations and exhibitions designed to show how well the country is doing.

As the source put it, "It's going to be a mass information onslaught on all fronts."

Berdymuhammedov began addressing the issue of Turkmenistan's image when he came into power last year after the death of Saparmurat Niazov, Turkmenistan's long-term leader, in December 2006. In the Niazov era, Turkmenistan was seen as a gas-rich but closed state where dissidents were brutally oppressed.

In the year-and-a-half since he was elected president, Berdymuhammedov has taken a series of steps to promote a more open climate. He has visited foreign countries, something Niazov avoided doing. He also has provided greater internet access and launched education reforms which include the creation of departments of journalism, public relations and international relations at Turkmen universities.

He has, however, done nothing to create more freedom of speech. The media continue to be under presidential control, and their editorial policy boils still down to praising Berdymuhammedov's policies and hailing him as the mastermind of a "new era of revival".

"He requires his "?brand-name' to be everywhere," said a staff-member at the state newspaper Neytralny Turkmenistan.

NBCentralAsia observers say the new PR drive is intended to counterbalance foreign media reports about the problems of life in Turkmenistan.

According to one observer in the capital Ashgabat, "There is a special [foreign media] monitoring team tasked with preparing an appropriate response to articles deemed to be negative or damaging to Turkmenistan's reputation."

Local commentators have decidedly mixed feelings about the plan.

One media-watcher from the north of the country believes it is doomed to failure and a waste of public money, as its aim is simply to continue along the current path of praising "Berdymuhammedov the reformer".

He said it would be far better if the authorities gave journalists carte blanche to write whatever they want about the situation in Turkmenistan. This, he argued, would not only improve the country's image, but help address human rights, civil liberties and democracy issues.

A journalist based in Ashgabat disagreed, saying the PR campaign was likely to work at least temporarily.

"Quite a lot of western politicians have fallen for this line and become more supportive of Turkmenistan," he said.

(NBCA is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)

Source: IWPR