WHEN THE Soviet Union collapsed almost a quarter-century ago, the new nation of Turkmenistan had grand hopes. Landlocked, and with only 5 million people, it nevertheless hoped to ride its vast natural gas reserves to prosperity: The “Kuwait of Central Asia” was the dream.
A stifling dictatorship, combined more recently with falling prices for oil and gas, instead has led Turkmenistan to a dead end. With Russia having its own troubles, China is pretty much the only customer for Turkmenistan’s gas, and revenue is falling. The government has had to suspend free utility services for residents, and some state-owned companies are having trouble paying wages. Meanwhile, Islamist militants are said to be pressing in across Turkmenistan’s long border with Afghanistan.
The rulers’ response to this bad news has been to try to stifle the reporting of it. The government already controlled all media inside the country, so Turkmen were increasingly relying on dispatches from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S.-funded, Prague-based network that in much of the world continues to supply the only accurate news. An intrepid team of eight reporters filed on economic conditions, investigated child labor and judicial abuses and monitored growing tensions at the border. People inside the country followed on shortwave radio or the Internet.
Recently, though, the government has been cracking down. Satellite dishes are being seized, ostensibly as part of a “beautification” campaign. Reporters have been harassed, threatened and imprisoned. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev disappeared in July; relatives have now heard that he has been sentenced to three years in prison, the director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Muhammad Tahir, told us. Another veteran journalist, Osmankuly Hallyev, has been forced to resign. So many of his relatives had been fired because of his work that Mr. Hallyev was singlehandedly supporting 16 people, Mr. Tahir said; then he was called into police headquarters and told: “Either you are going to stop working for RFE or you will go to jail.”
Why does Turkmenistan’s government feel it can stifle a U.S. network with such impunity? Perhaps because it has watched Azerbaijan, another former Soviet state just across the Caspian Sea, embrace similar tactics, with no negative repercussions from the Obama administration. State Department officials from time to time deplore the deteriorating human rights conditions in these countries and many others, but U.S. policy is never much affected. That makes it open season on RFE/RL’s brave journalists — and leaves millions of people with dwindling access to the truth.
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