The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government did not respect these rights.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government also warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems.
During the year the government publicized new laws that stipulate civil servants must refrain from public statements on the activities of the government and its leaders if such statements are not part of their official duties. The laws also state civil servants must refrain from making public statements regarding the value of goods, works, and services, including the government’s budget, borrowing, or debt.
In October state police services threatened to harm animal rights activist Galina Kucherenko for her online postings protesting a government campaign to destroy stray dogs and cats found on the city streets. Their harassment and intimidation led to Kucherenko’s two-month involuntary confinement to her home, which appeared to ease toward the end of the year.
Press and Media Freedoms: The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers/journals. Quasi-independent weekly newspaper Rysgal continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government maintained restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers except for the private, but government-sanctioned, Turkish newspaper Zaman Turkmenistan, which reflected the views of the official state newspapers, and Atavatan-Turkmenistan, a Turkish journal.
The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. International organizations and news outlets highlighted the forced removal of some satellite dishes by the government and replacement with telecommunications packages, such as cable, that limited access to certain channels and kinds of information. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access.
The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use.
There was no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities. The government reported 25 foreign mass media agencies, such as Xinhua, the Associated Press, RIA Novosti, and Turkish TRT, were accredited and that Trend, AZERTAC, and the Associated Press of Pakistan applied for accreditation. The government did not respond to a November 2015 call by the international community for accreditation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists critical of its official policy to surveillance and harassment. There were reports law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, including by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad. RFE/RL stringer Saparmamed Nepeskuliyev was arrested, charged, and convicted for possession of narcotics and sentenced to three years’ incarceration in 2015. He remained imprisoned. HRW disputed the legal basis of the charge, stating it was politically motivated. Visiting foreign journalists reported harassment and denial of freedom of movement when they attempted to report from the country.
Several RFE/RL stringers faced harassment and intimidation throughout the year. On October 25, unknown persons attacked and robbed Soltan Achilova after police confronted her for photographing a line of persons queuing for cigarettes at a convenience store. Achilova was harassed verbally by unknown persons on November 14 and was struck by men on bicycles on November 25.
RFE/RL stringer Khudayberdy Allashov was arrested and detained in Konye-Urgench December 3 for possession of an illegal local tobacco product. Reportedly, police also beat Allashov following his arrest, detained his wife and mother, and seized his mother’s home. Allashov faced a seven-year sentence for the alleged crime and remained in jail at year’s end.
The OSCE reported in December RFE/RL stringer Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was threatened by authorities with enforcement of a previously suspended jail sentence. As in previous years, the government required journalists working for state-owned media to obtain permission to cover specific events as well as to publish or broadcast the subject matter they covered.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits censorship and provides for freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents often engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishing houses and printing and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction.
The government continued to monitor citizens’ e-mail and internet activity. Reports indicated the Ministry of National Security controlled the main access gateway and that several servers belonging to internet protocol addresses registered to the Ministry of Communications operated software that allowed the government to record Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) conversations, turn on computer cameras and microphones, and log keystrokes. The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as virtual private network connections, including those of diplomatic missions and international businesses, and severely restricted internet access to other websites. Skype, an encrypted VOIP service, was blocked throughout the year.
According to the government, 12 percent of the population used the internet. The percentage of the population that accessed the internet via cell phones reportedly was significantly higher, although official estimates were not available. Much of the population received its news from Russian- and Turkish-language cable and satellite television feeds.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government did not tolerate criticism of government policy or the president in academic circles and curtailed research in areas it considered politically sensitive, such as comparative law, history, ethnic relations, and theology. In 2015 a presidential decree established procedures for the government to certify foreign diplomas. To have foreign diplomas formally recognized, graduates must complete an application, submit information on their family history for three generations, and pass regular Turkmen university graduation exams related to their majors. Due to this extensive process, many graduates of foreign universities reported they were unable to certify their diplomas with authorities at the Ministry of Education, making them ineligible for employment at state agencies. Some graduates reported ministry officials demanded bribes to allow certification of their diplomas. The government strictly controlled the production of plays and performances in state theaters, and these were severely limited. Authorities also strictly controlled film screenings and limited viewings to approved films dubbed or subtitled in Turkmen and Russian, unless sponsored by a foreign embassy.
The Ministry of Culture censored and monitored all public exhibitions, including music, art, and cultural events.