Following the adoption of Turkmenistan's first-ever media law earlier this year, Ashgabat appears to be inching toward the liberalization of its restrictive media market. But are the changes worth more than the paper they’re printed on?
Russia's Regnum news agency reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who likes to be called “The Protector” – has withdrawn his protection from most of the country's newspapers, which he used to own single-handedly. That’s because the new media law, which the president signed on January 4, bans the “monopolization of the media.”
Turkmenistan has long languished at the bottom of global media freedom rankings, so observers like Reporters Without Borders, the watchdog, feel a legal ban on media censorship means little.
Berdymukhamedov isn’t going too far. The country's Russian-language mouthpieces, “Turkmenistan” and “Neutral Turkmenistan,” may have acquired a new owner – The Cabinet of Ministers – but the president heads the Cabinet. “Nesil” (Young Generation) will now be published by the Magtymguly youth organization, “Watan” (Homeland) by a trade union, and “Mugallymlar Gazeti” (Teacher's Newspaper) by the Ministry of Education. Of course, these bodies are all loyal to the president, who wields absolute authority. And in case any journalist gets too many crazy ideas, all appointments at all media outlets are done by presidential decree, says Regnum.
Local journalists tell Regnum that the move has caused uncertainty. Freedom to do their jobs isn’t what worries Turkmen journalists: Now that the papers are nominally independent, they will have to compete. Most are redundant and in the red, the agency reports.
Turkmenistan, one of the world's most isolated and repressive regimes, came second-to-last place in Freedom House's 2012 Freedom of the Press report.