Leaked videos of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s tumble at a horse race last week surfaced in the international media, despite painstaking efforts by Berdymukhamedov’s government to conceal the incident. Turkmenistan’s security services reportedly went into high gear to prevent these images from slipping out to the rest of the world and tarnish the refined image that the Turkmen leader has been cultivating. Nonetheless, The Washington Post, BBC, CNN, Associated Press, Telegraph, among others reported bemusedly on the incident, which was even lampooned on US late night TV by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, interviewing Mel Brooks impersonating Berdymukhamedov.
According to Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights's blog (TIHR), the video obtained and published by Eurasianet.org and reposted on their web-site “Turkmenistan Chronicles” was viewed over 500,000 times, provoking many comments which the moderators of “Turkmenistan Chronicles” found too harsh to publish; and in the nearly 300 comments that they did publish, commenters gloated and said Berdymukhamedov got what he deserved.
Residents of Turkmenistan learned about the incident from Turkish and Russian TV, while domestic media, all of which is state controlled, made no mention of it. While official Turkmenistan concealed any danger to the president, Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Defense in conjunction with the National Horse Association organized a “sadaka” – a special religious dinner to his health. Though Berdymukhamedov’s fall apparently did not lead to serious physical injury, it clearly must have wounded the pride of the Turkmen President, who has cultivated the image of the all-mighty “Arkadag,” or Protector.
Even Sports Illustrated, which rarely comments on political or international issues, commented on the incident, saying that, “the choreographed winning of the race - the nearest challenger was obviously throttling back his mount in the home stretch - the media censorship and the reported tough security response at the airport all reflect Turkmenistan's two decades of stifling authoritarianism.”
The US-based Freedom House named Turkmenistan as the second worst country in the world to work as a journalist after North Korea; this follows the ranking, last week, by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), of Turkmenistan at 177th place in their annual World Press Index of 179 states, with Turkmenistan only ranking above North Korea and Eritrea. RSF noted that for all of the Turkmen government’s talk of reform, it “has not yielded an inch of its totalitarian control of the media.” The country has a track-record of jailing journalists, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in an article entitled “Bleak Media Outlook in Repressive Stans,” noting that the only real change in recent years has been an attempt to exert the same control over the Internet that it has on domestic print and broadcast media, and to squelch independent or oppositional media.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), named Turkmenistan as “a country of particular concern,” keeping company alongside the likes of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Vietnam. The Turkmen law on religion places huge obstacles to the functioning of independent religious groups; police raids and other harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continues; and Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely imprisoned for conscientious objection, according to the report.