Turkmenistan Clamps Down on COVID-19 Criticism

At the opening of a new hospital in November, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan arrives to attend the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, October 22, 2019.Globally, more than 62 million cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus have been confirmed. While Turkmenistan denies the pandemic has reached its borders, it has imposed measures, including a mask mandate and restrictions on travel and retail, a Turkmen citizen, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told VOA.“They close bazaars and restrict travel between the regions of the country. The railroad communication is stopped as well, but planes continue flying between the regional centers,” the person, who lives overseas but still visits his home country, said.Discussion about pandemicThe government has also sought to stifle discussion about the pandemic, including detaining those who speak publicly about COVID-19. Earlier this year, its Foreign Ministry said the People wearing protective face masks, used as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), are seen inside a bus in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, July 15, 2020.Turkmenistan was already a repressive place for free speech: the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks it as the second-worst country on its global Football supporters attend the Turkmenistan national football championship match between Altyn Asyr and Kopetdag on April 19, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.Access to news blockedForeign-based websites and media covering news on Turkmenistan and its handling of the pandemic have been hit by cyberattacks or attempts to block access.The Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan, which reports in Turkmen, Russian and English, has experienced cyberattacks since 2011, but the attacks intensified in recent months. Journalists at the site, which is part of the TIHR, said they believe the attacks are initiated by Turkmen security services in retaliation for their independent coverage of COVID-19 and other developments. Like other foreign-based websites, Chronicles of Turkmenistan is accessible only with the help of circumvention tools such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN).Ak Welsapar, an exiled journalist who runs Erkin Turkmenistan Radio, a YouTube channel with more than 33,000 followers and 18 million views, says he believes authorities were behind a copyright infringement accusation that led to YouTube shutting the channel in September.“Our radio was the first to inform the Turkmen people about coronavirus from February 8, 2020, and regularly published journalistic materials about COVID-19 and its wide spread in Turkmenistan,” Welsapar, who lives in Sweden, told VOA.Welspar said the copyright allegation related to his show’s usage of official national television footage and he believes authorities hired proxies in the West to file the complaint.The journalist has set up a parallel channel and says he hopes YouTube will allow the original one back online in mid-December.By denying access to independent news or critical voices on social media, Turkmenistan is leaving its citizens in the dark, journalists say.“Unfortunately, no media in Turkmenistan has been able to report on COVID-19 to warn the public about the disease at this crucial moment,” Welsapar said.

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