In July, the World Bank signed a $20 million loan for Turkmenistan, to address the health and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Turkmenistan, however, the virus has not arrived. Or at least, that’s what the government claims.
Turkmenistan is one of the handful countries in the world that has reported zero COVID-19 cases. According to the government, this is thanks to the successful prevention strategies in place. The reality, however, is much more bleak. There have been outbreaks in the country, but the authorities have made it impossible to report on them.
Nurgeldi Halykov, a 26-year-old citizen reporter, has been in jail for a year for having shared a photo of a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation in the capital, Ashgabat. The delegation was there to assess the country’s preparedness for COVID-19.
On July 12, Halykov posted that photo — taken and shared on social media by an acquaintance — on the Turkmen.News website, one of the few independent media and human rights projects that covers day-to-day news from the country and reports on cases of rights violations. The next day, the police summoned him for questioning. Since then, his family and friends have lost contact with him. They think he might be held in a prison camp in Seydi, but they are not allowed to visit or speak with him.
In September 2020, Halykov was sentenced to four years on fabricated charges of fraud, accused of having failed to repay a $5,000 loan from a friend. Apparently, after his arrest, authorities questioned his acquaintances, trying to find someone willing to submit a complaint against him.
“[Halykov’s conviction] exemplifies the absurdity of the trumped-up charges used by the authorities to gag the free press’s few remaining representatives. He risks being tortured in prison,” Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement. “Turkmenistan is a black hole for news and information. The media are completely controlled by the state and few journalists take the risk of doing independent reporting.”
In February 2021, a group of U.N. Special Rapporteurs sent a letter to the Turkmen authorities, expressing their concerns for the “meritless charges, judicial harassment and alleged arbitrary detention” against the journalist. To date, they have not received a response.
Yet, shortly after Halykov’s imprisonment on fabricated charges, the World Bank started to negotiate a loan with the Turkmen government. The paradox couldn’t be starker. While a journalist was behind bars simply for sharing a photo related to COVID-19, World Bank representatives were deciding how many millions of dollars to lend to the government that jailed that journalist, to support its COVID-19 response.
The World Bank project aims to “reinforce the country’s response efforts and preparedness against the health and social risks of the COVID-19 pandemic” and it also provides funds for awareness-raising and communication activities. Even more ironically, the WHO meeting that led to Halykov’s arrest is mentioned in the loan document. What is not mentioned there, however, is that anyone who would dare to speak about the pandemic might end up in jail.
Ruslan Myatiev, the editor of Turkmen.News, attempted to engage with the World Bank and brought Halykov’s case to their attention, urging them to raise the issue with the Turkmen authorities. He also demanded the World Bank take measures to ensure people could speak freely and safely about the bank-funded project before approving it. Yet, his demands were met with silence.
“Development banks are powerful actors, and they should use their influence to take concrete actions to protect press freedom,” said Myatiev. “Yet, experience shows that Halykov’s case is an emblematic example of what happens when development banks are confronted with real cases of retaliation. They ignore requests from civil society, they shirk responsibility, they claim that press freedom issues are too political and sensitive and that they cannot do anything to push their borrowers to release journalists. This is unacceptable.”
In Turkmenistan, the right to freedom of expression and to access to information are completely denied. Turkmenistan is at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, ranking 178 out of 180 countries. The government controls all media and citizens can only access a highly-censored version of the internet. The situation has only worsened during COVID-19, since authorities have used the pandemic as a pretext to further clamp down on human rights and repress fundamental freedoms.
Unfortunately, Turkmenistan is not an isolated case. As exposed in our recent report “Unhealthy Silence: Development banks’ inaction on retaliation during COVID-19,” governments worldwide have received billions of dollars from public development banks for their COVID-19 responses. At the same time, they were threatening, attacking, and criminalizing journalists, health workers, and human rights defenders who were providing crucial information about the spread of the virus or criticizing the shortcomings of the state-response to the pandemic.
According to the report, published on July 27 by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, ARTICLE 19, and IFEX, at least 335 people suffered reprisals in a total of 35 countries that received or are receiving financial support from international financial institutions for their COVID-19 response.
“Development banks have clearly failed to take actions to prevent and address reprisals”, said Dalile Antunez, researcher at the Coalition for Human Rights in Development. “Even though they keep reaffirming their supposed commitment to civic participation and they have policies of zero tolerance against retaliations in place, banks stay silent when these attacks occur. The retaliations taking place in countries that receive development banks loans seriously undermine the legitimacy of those loans and contribute to jeopardize their potential impact.”
As of July 30, 2021, public development banks have earmarked more than $154 billion to finance responses to COVID-19 worldwide. Development banks, as international institutions, have human rights obligations to respect. They also have to comply with their internal policies, where they commit to protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Last year, the World Bank also published a statement where it committed to apply a zero-tolerance policy to retaliations.
“Development banks’ project documents are full of good intentions, but these words are of little use if their commitments are not upheld,” said Antunez. “Halykov remains locked behind bars for merely trying to demonstrate that COVID-19 exists, in a country where the World Bank just gave a loan to for the pandemic response. We cannot expect to stop the spread of the virus if the voices of those providing crucial information about it are being silenced.”