President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned a new page in the annals of dictatorship chic this month with the opening of the 211-meter high Turkmenistan Broadcasting Center, an enormous television tower bulging with the sixteen-sided state symbol of Turkmenistan. The TV tower, built in time for celebrations of Turkmenistan's 20th anniversay of Independence, sits atop a green and white pyramid-like structure in the Kopetdag mountains south of Ashgabat.
The ever-faithful State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) trumpeted that the tower is "new vivid evidence for the efforts the Turkmen leader takes to modernize and develop the telecommunications sector and introduce advanced, innovative technologies in this sphere that is a state policy priority in the epoch of new Revival."
Members of the rubber-stamp parliament, heads of ministries and law-enforcement, and foreign diplomats were present for the tower's ribbon-cutting ceremony, which also featured the usual brightly-costumed young girls presenting bouquets of flowers, and then performances of national dancing. The Turkmen leader cautioned that all the new equipment should be "effectively and efficiently used to produce high quality, informative programs which must be distinguished by a high level of artistry, richness of content, thematic diversity and modern audio and video design."
The problem is that the president is chronically unsatisfied with state-controlled TV, which he constantly -- and counterintuitively -- urges to be more creative even as he personally controls it.
Like many other grand state construction projects in Turkmenistan, the TV tower was built by the Turkish firm Polimeks. The president has been unhappy with Turkish construction firms and schools in recent months, but he expressed satisfaction with this favored company which managed to "meet modern requirements and embody the national cultural peculiarities," as TDH put it.
Although the government news account didn't mention it for some reason, an American IT company based in Florida, was also involved in the project. In a company press release, Harris Morris, president of Harris Broadcast Communications, said: “This is one of the largest broadcast projects that has been awarded anywhere in the world in recent years," universalnewswires.com reported.
Harris is modernizing the Turkmen television with technology upgrades and equipping a new multi-facility broadcast center as well as supplying three mobile broadcast vehicles.
“The TV-tower project is a massive television complex that combines broadcasting, production, acquisition, post-production and a variety of links facilities needed for transmitting a range of HD programs,” Policom general manager Emre Dagdeviren was quoted as saying in the Harris press release. "Harris is collaborating with our engineers to provide the best implementation of their integrated solutions — even as the dust continues to cover the construction site,” Dagdeviren added.
Harris put the cost of the project at $450 million -- with $200 million related to the cost of technology. The TDH article didn't mention any cost at all, although bakutoday.net cited a price tag of 137 million euros (about $191 million).
Now, what about the content? Shadurdy Alovov, deputy culture minister and chairman of Turkmen TV's general directorate is the latest in a series of highly-pressured officials on the hook to please the dictator. At a recent government meeting, Berdymukhamedov told him he should be making new and interesting TV and radio programs particularly on a new, sixth sports channel, suggesting that "with regard for copyright" the channel could also air world and European championships. He also called for more training of personnel, something that recently OSCE has been helping out with.
Meanwhile, Turkmenistan's citizen journalists aren't coming anywhere near this ostentatious tower or the heavily-controlled ornate programs state TV produces, but are taking great risks to film disturbing scenes in daily life and uploading them on their own to Youtube and other social media networks.