Freedom Needed for Turkmen Arts to Flourish

The Turkmen authorities have decided that the best way to foster the arts is by setting up a government commission which will rule on which novels, films and plays are up to standard. NBCentralAsia commentators say there is one crucial element missing from the plan – artistic freedom, the surest way of raising standards.

President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov set up the new commission on October 22, saying it should not only "assess the artistic quality" of literature, plays and film scripts, but "give permission" for them to be released to the public.

The state news agency said the idea was to "ensure higher quality and depth" of works of art which, it said, "should reflect the scale of the changes going on in the New Revival Age" – a term now used to describe the period since Berdymuhammedov took over as head of state last year, in contrast to the era of the late Saparmurat Niazov.

No announcement has been made about who will sit on the new arts commission.

Some independent media operating outside the country have decried the announcement as the "official introduction of state censorship". But NBCentralAsia analysts point out that censorship is alive and well anyway, having continued uninterrupted since the Niazov era.

Pressure on the arts was first applied in earnest in 1995, when Niazov closed newspapers and magazines, and tightened up control over the media and the theatres. A few years later, he banned both the opera and the circus.

Since then, a special committee that protects state secrets has to give its permission before a work of literature can be published, a play put on, a TV programme shown, or a film go into production.

"No television report is aired, no book is published, and no play is performed without higher approval," said a media-watcher in Ashgabat.

Analysts say there is no way the new commission is going to improve the quality of the arts.

"Commission members will merely take a jaundiced look at every new film, play and book, and seek out a meaning that is contrary to the Age of Revival," said a cinema producer inside the country.

A similar view was expressed by a local journalist who used to be deputy editor of a well-known print publication, and is therefore well acquainted with the workings of censorship.

"Given what our censors at Press House were like, picking out some insignificant phrase and demonstrating that it had some hidden anti-authority meaning, there's little prospect that we are going to see high artistic standards," he said.

Commentators told NBCentralAsia that the only way artists are going to be inspired to produce high-quality work – as opposed to the dull and monotonous fare they currently churn out – is if they are granted freedom to work.

When he came to power last year, President Berdymuhammedov launched a series of apparently liberalising reforms. He restored the opera and circus, called for better professional standards in Turkmen cinema, television, radio and literature, and spoke of the need for retraining in the arts.

A year and a half later, a theatre director in Turkmenistan said all the hopes the artistic community had placed in the new leader had been dashed.

"We were sure that the old dictator, who destroyed any sign of creativity with a blind hatred, had been replaced by an educated man who had some idea about culture," he said. "We were sorely mistaken."

An actress at a Russian-language theatre in Ashgabat said there was no need for censorship since the audience, not the authorities, was well able to decide whether a particular production was any good.

"If people come to our see our plays, it means we have someone to work for. If they don't, then we need to think about what we've done wrong, or consider abandoning the play altogether," she said.

(NBCentralAsia 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