Crossroads Asia

Turkmenistan’s War on Satellite Dishes

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Crossroads Asia

Turkmenistan’s War on Satellite Dishes

Are Ashgabat’s satellite dishes an eyesore or a lifeline to information?

In a press release Friday, Human Rights Watch condemned what it called Turkmenistan’s “war on satellite dishes.” Recently, the Turkmen government revived its longtime battle for complete information control:

At the end of March, 2015, local housing authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs started ordering residents of multistory apartment buildings to take down their satellite dishes, citing simply an “order from above” that allegedly stated the dishes ruined the view of the city. Authorities told residents they could instead get cable television packages through the government or state satellite antennae.

Turkmenistan maintains a neutrality policy and opts out of participation in most regional endeavors, HRW calls it “one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world.”

Last weekend, the Civic Solidarity Platform, a network of more than 60 nongovernmental organizations, noted that the initiative was aimed at “fully blocking access of the population of Turkmenistan to hundreds of independent media outlets which are currently accessible in the country only through satellite dishes.” The group cited the prevalence of satellite dishes in the country as evidence of “a reaction of the society to the government censorship and propaganda on the official TV and radio.”

The Civic Solidarity Platform noted, in particular, that “the main target of this campaign is Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen-language service of Radio Liberty/Free Europe.” RFE/RL is a U.S. funded broadcasting organization operating throughout eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Radio Azatlyq’s website is blocked in Turkmenistan and the internet is provided only through TurkmenTelecom, which is state-owned. Turkmenistan has been listed as an “enemy of the internet” by Reporters Without Borders since 2006, which called the country a “news black hole” and the government “extremely despotic and paranoid.”

In RFE/RL’s story on the targeting of  Radio Azatlyq earlier this week, Bruce Pannier reported that “in some cases Azatlyk would still be accessible on some antennas but on others Azatlyk programing would not be available.”

Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HWR, says that “satellite television is the last lifeline to the outside world for people in Turkmenistan.”

Of course, the Turkmen government couched the removal in terms of aesthetics, apparently the dishes “distort the architectural-urban image of the city [Ashgabat].” Turkmen citizens are being offered “cable TV packages” as a replacement for the dismantled dishes, but Civic Solidarity Platform says these packages include mostly entertainment channels produced in Russia, Turkey, and India and exclude all channels offering news. Moreover:

All this “cable TV campaign”, besides being a direct violation of the right to access information, is also a state level piracy, as no official contracts with the content producers from Russia, Turkey or India have been signed. This is a violation of copyright.

In the past the Turkmen government has shut down cable TV coverage, as it did in 2011 to prevent news of an accidental explosion at Abadan, a city near Ashgabat, from spreading. Neither is this the first time the Turkmen government has engaged in forced removal of equipment it deemed unsightly. Last summer, about 50 residents on a Ashgabat neighborhood protest, blocking cranes sent to remove their window air conditioners. Another small protest happened in late November in response to another attempt.

The BBC reported at the time of the air conditioner incident that the neighborhood in question was “close to streets which the Turkmen president regularly uses.”

“No one believes this is really about aesthetics,” Denber said of the recent campaign to remove the satellite dishes, “[p]erhaps if the government stopped censoring the media and internet, there would be fewer satellite dishes.”