Over a month ago, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev went missing. Authorities won’t say where he is. The freelance Turkmen journalist, who has written for the Netherlands-based NGO, Alternative Turkmen News (ATN) as well as the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) had been in Avaz (Awaza), near Turkmenbashi, researching a story when he was detained in early July. Eventually his family and colleagues learned that he had been arrested on illegal drug possession charges in Akdash (a town also near Turkmenbashi).
RFE/RL reports that their requests to confirm his detention have gone unanswered by the authorities. There is little surprising about the story.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed societies on earth, ranking 197th out of 199 countries surveyed in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press Index. RFE/RL Turkmen Service journalists have always been targets for arbitrary detention and harassment by authorities, but Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir says they have experienced a surge of harassment in recent months, including what he describes as “Maoist” interrogations and public denunciations of journalists by officials.
“Just within the last six months, two other reporters have been detained and questioned repeatedly by police, and two had their mobile phone service cut off for two weeks,” said Tahir.
Two weeks ago, as Nepeskuliev’s story was breaking Bradley Jardine covered the broader storyline of Turkmenistan’s crackdown on journalism for The Diplomat. Though Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are by far the most authoritarian and closed societies in Central Asia, press freedom across the region is hamstrung by regimes afraid of bad news. In March, police in Kyrgyzstan briefly detained an American freelancer and the country recently broke-off a treaty with the U.S. over differing storylines regarding Azimjon Askarov, a human rights defender and journalist serving a life sentence in Kyrgyz jail. Kazakhstan is trying to shut down what remains of opposition media using the U.S. court system, among other levers. Tajikistan has made an attempt to monopolize the news–feeding government information through a state media outlet first.
But the fear of bad news prevents local journalists from telling Central Asia’s full story to the world. Absent those voices, it’s clear why western media report almost exclusively on the ugly parts of politics and society in Central Asia: human rights abuses, sham elections, and the threat of violent extremism. And because independent or foreign (or foreign-funded) journalists are subject to the tightest controls, good news stories tend to come from state agencies that lack international credibility. With good reason, state press agencies in Central Asia, like those in Russia, habitually gloss over negative news and highlight hyper local feel-good stories.
While trying to stymie bad news stories about state abuses, Central Asian regimes have fed international ignorance about the region (just Google Borat if you need convincing), which is detrimental to the foreign investment most of these countries crave and the cultural respect and international interest their vibrant societies deserve. Instead of a variety of stories–about what worked, what failed, what Turkmen like or don’t about local government or national policies–news about Turkmenistan is usually about gas pipelines or massive, gaudy statues. That is, when it isn’t about missing journalists.