Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated states in the world, its government one of the most repressive. Ashgabat scrapes the bottom of various international rankings of freedom, governance, corruption, and so on.
On March 31, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) — which ranked Turkmenistan dead last in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index — published a rebuke of Ashgabat for allegedly “banishing the word ‘coronavirus’ from the Turkmen vocabulary.”
RSF updated its post on April 1, revising the headline to read more accurately that “Turkmenistan media censor themselves on ‘coronavirus.’”
But the news was out of the bag.
On March 31 and April 1, various mainstream Western media outlets were repeating the claim that Turkmenistan had “banned” the word “coronavirus.” NPR ran an update proclaiming that “Turkmenistan Has Banned Use Of The Word ‘Coronavirus.’” So did Newsweek and ABC, among many others.
The root of the claim is two-fold. First, a report in Turkmenistan Chronicle, an exile-run independent Turkmen news source, noted that health information brochures published by the Turkmen government no longer included specific references to “coronavirus.” Second, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported that individuals had been arrested by plainclothes police for talking about the global pandemic in public.
RSF’s original post stated: “The state-controlled media are no longer allowed to use the word and it has even been removed from health information brochures distributed in schools, hospitals and workplaces, according to Turkmenistan Chronicle, one of the few sources of independent news, whose site is blocked within the country.”
That bit has been removed and revised to read: “It’s as if it had never existed. The state media are saying nothing about the effects of coronavirus in Turkmenistan and the word has even been removed from health information brochures distributed in schools, hospitals and workplaces, according to Turkmenistan Chronicles, one of the few sources of independent news, whose site is blocked within the country.”
But Eurasianet, in its regular Turkmenistan-focused bulletin on March 31, noted that as of March 25, state-controlled media were running stories mentioning coronavirus. As of writing, on Turkmenistan Today (the state news agency) there still remain a few stories mentioning coronavirus, the most recent a March 25 report about Turkmenistan bringing citizens home from countries affected by coronavirus. Importantly, such articles approach coronavirus as a problem in the outside world, not a threat inside Turkmenistan.
As of April 1, the article is still accessible. (That could change at any moment).
As the headline that Turkmenistan “banned” the word “coronavirus” flies around the internet, are we missing the real point? And is it pedantic to bother pointing this out?
The reality is that the Turkmen government maintains that it has no cases of coronavirus — despite a massive outbreak in neighboring Iran, cases in Afghanistan, and the emergence of a growing case load in other Central Asian states. In fact, Turkmenistan is one of the very few countries left in the world to not report coronavirus cases. According to John Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center, 180 countries have logged coronavirus cases.
Eurasianet put it best: In Turkmenistan “denialism is still the order of the day.”
When Turkmenistan bursts into the international media circus, it’s usually for some ridiculous reason, like the president lifting a gold barbell in a cabinet meeting. There’s an argument to be had about whether such reports help or hurt. On one hand, they bring to international attention a country rarely reported on. On the other, they bring Turkmenistan to light as a caricature, about which almost anything is possible to believe and nothing can be done.
To answer my own question about whether this exercise is pedantic: Yes, but it’s still worth doing.
Instead of highlighting a government “ban” we should be highlighting the reality that Turkmenistan’s leadership is approaching the pandemic issue in a dangerously oblique fashion, without the kind of seriousness its neighbors and countries around the world have adopted. Those who will suffer most from Ashgabat’s denialism are Turkmen citizens. Turkmenistan’s neighbors and international players have a moral obligation, if nothing else, to make an effort at bringing Ashgabat around on confronting the reality of the pandemic.
In comparison to much of the rest of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is certainly ignoring the enormity of the coronavirus threat. Uzbekistan, as Colleen Wood pointed out recently, has set up a state-run Telegram account exclusively publishing coronavirus updates. It has more than 1.2 million subscribers. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well, there are government websites and extensive media coverage of the pandemic. The word “coronavirus” may not be banned in official Turkmen media, but it’s definitely not appearing at the rate the global situation warrants.
More troubling is the RFE/RL report that Turkmen have been arrested for discussing the pandemic in public. Turkmen can’t get reliable information from their government and apparently can’t share it among themselves, amplifying the risk that the coronavirus will devastate the country.
Turkmenistan has been in discussion with other states about coronavirus — such as Uzbekistan — but the official Turkmen readout of the March 27 phone call between Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov only alludes to cooperation in “this difficult time for the world community.” The Uzbek version directly refers to preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The Turkmen government is, in a twisted way, taking the coronavirus seriously — just not as a public health threat. Ashgabat’s first instinct is regime preservation and that is predicated on maintaining the fiction that everything is fine and dandy, even as the world burns. Turkmenistan has neither the funds, the institutional capacity, nor the healthcare infrastructure to handle the coronavirus, and being officially neutral Ashgabat maintains no truly close allies to which it can easily turn for help. The international community, and even the neighborhood, don’t have easy answers. Even the world’s most advanced healthcare systems are strained at the moment and offering assistance to such a recalcitrant nonpartner as Turkmenistan is difficult to imagine.