Clara Zid, July 2022
“The government doesn’t tolerate any criticism. They see us as traitors. In their understanding, telling the truth is showing disrespect for the motherland”, says Ruslan Myatiev, founder and director of the independent news outlet Turkmen.News. Shortly after its release in 2014, the news site got blocked by the authorities in Turkmenistan. To circumvent the blocking, Qurium deployed a Bifrost mirror hosted in Google Storage. However, in a blink of an eye, the authorities blocked the complete Google Storage service for the whole population, just to kill the mirror and silence the media. “They would do anything to prevent free flow of information, even if it would mean blocking Google storage and paralyzing their own work. They are one step away from shutting down the Internet completely”, Ruslan adds.
How does the media landscape look like in Turkmenistan?
Media is under full control of the government. Their major role is to promote the official line and serve as a powerful tool to brainwash people. Take for example the pandemic, until today Turkmenistan officially remains “COVID-free”. While media in Turkmenistan stick to that story, Turkmen.News operating more than 6,000 km away from the country, has confirmed dozens of deaths, including top government officials.
There are a handful of similar news organizations like Turkmen.News. We often work together to get certain facts confirmed or refuted.
Your local audience is limited because your website is blocked (although mirrored) and less than 20% of the population has internet connection. How do your readers reach your news?
All social media that we are accustomed to use in our daily life are blocked in Turkmenistan. Moreover, the regime blocks even bypassing tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPN). But, despite blockage, people find a way to read us on the web. Visits from Turkmenistan are in top 5 – and mostly social media. We have the largest news channel on Telegram dedicated to Turkmenistan. I sometimes notice that individual posts get 100+ shares.
What type of news are you focusing on?
We report about things that no one in Turkmenistan dares to tell, like investigating corruption and nepotism within the First Family. The ex-president (the same time the father of the current president) gave dozens of millions of state funds to his nephews to supply basic staples and chemicals. The nephews monopolized the export of Turkmenistan’s national wealth. One of the president’s relatives is the general director of Turkmenistan’s sole mobile operator. In any other country these facts would top the news, lead to immediate impeachment and subsequent criminal prosecution.
How come you choose to become a journalist in a country where press freedom hardly exists?
My parents are both journalists. Back in early 1990s, their job looked more like investigators. People would approach them with problems, e.g., unlawful prison sentence for someone innocent, and they would inquire with the prosecutor’s office. A newspaper article could change peoples lives back then. Today that is a different story, but the idea that proper journalism can and should help, remains.
“We have about a dozen reporters inside the country and several dozens of sources: in the government, in the law enforcement, among businesses and civil servants”
When and why did you establish Turkmen.News?
It started back in 2010 as a spam-like project when I manually copied independent news articles published elsewhere, compiled them into one file and sent it off to Turkmen emails. The project started with around 300 emails, and over a year the number of recipients grew 10 times. People started to share their own facts, photos, and the volume quickly grew to allow me to start my own media project. It was initially on Facebook, then in 2014 I created a website. Today we have about a dozen reporters inside the country and several dozens of sources: in the government, in the law enforcement, among businesses and civil servants.
What’s the mission of Turkmen.News?
In general terms, today we promote freedom of speech and the rule of law. The latter includes bringing cases of human rights violations to the international stakeholders. On a personal level, I want to see positive changes in my beloved homeland. We deserve pure tap water in households, excellent education and healthcare services, good roads and most importantly – confidence that the future will be bright for us and our children.
You live in exile in the Netherlands. When did you go into exile and what forced to you take that decision?
I left Turkmenistan in 2008 to continue my studies. Once graduated, I started to work and in 2010 I started the “spam-project”. The country where I lived at that time – Kyrgyzstan – wasn’t safe for me anymore as I did a lot of reporting on Turkmen students banned from studying in Kyrgyzstan. Apparently, the Turkmen government thought that the students would learn nothing but how to overthrow authoritarian regimes!
What is the hardest to run a news room from exile?
The hardest is to get facts confirmed quickly or to be an eyewitness of something. Sometimes we lack audio-visual materials, which would make our stories more reliable and beautiful in terms of layout. But that’s a safety issue: even if we get photos from scene, we can’t publish them right away because there are security cameras everywhere. The police could easily identify our sources and cause trouble for them.
Are you in contact with the authorities of Turkmenistan regarding Turkmen News?
We have a large readership in Turkmenistan among government officials. Some of them share similar values, and help us in our work by providing information, official documents and even databases. They know that tyrant and his relatives have occupied the country, but they can’t openly fight against them. They do it covertly by being an important part of Turkmen.News.
Your sources are at great risk. What precautions do they take?
When it comes to photos or videos, we allow a decent amount of time to pass before we publish them. It can take up to eight months before we publish the evidence as we believe that by this time street camera footage is gone already. We have developed our own techniques to take photos or make videos, obviously, I won’t reveal that secret. And to transfer files or simply chat with sources we use secure messengers, erase files using certain apps that leave no traces, etc.
“I am grateful to several VPN providers that magnanimously granted us dozens of free yearly VPN subscriptions that we share with our trusted sources”
How do you communicate with your reporters?
There is a number of secure messaging apps. All of them are accessible through a VPN. I am grateful to several VPN providers that magnanimously granted us dozens of free yearly VPN subscriptions that we share with our trusted sources. Not all of them work in the country, but some do. I would like to use this opportunity to ask other providers to help us promote freedom of information. We are open to any cooperation with cyber security groups/companies.
Could you mention a few stories that you are especially proud or satisfied with?
In our 12-year history we have published hundreds of breaking stories that were later acknowledged by the authorities, such as a military helicopter crash (identifying all people on board), and several deadly crashes of military vehicles. We are proud of the fact that people trust us when they share sensitive information. By doing so, they risk their freedom and even lives. For us at Turkmen.News it is a big responsibility, to care for personal data, physical safety and cyber safety of our reporters. Any mistake could be devastating.
Three of your reporters have spent time in prison due to their work with Turkmen News. Can you share with us their stories?
Our first imprisoned reporter was under the radar of the secret police even before he started working for Turkmen.News. He wrote about poor roads in his region, lack of drinking water, poor state of public schools, lack of supplies at the local heating plant. All his articles were accompanied by high-quality photos. Later we agreed that he would visit the local recreation zone, Awaza, on the Caspian Sea, to make a photo report about how Turkmen citizens spend their summer vacation. After a few days when I didn’t hear back from him, I called his landline and found out that he had been arrested on drugs charges. A person who had never used drugs before supposedly turned out to be a drug addict.
My second imprisoned reporter was my relative, Gaspar Matalayev. He was our forced labor monitor. Every autumn in Turkmenistan, tens of thousands of civil servants are forced to pick cotton. This is totally against both the local laws and Turkmenistan’s international commitments. But the government sends people to pick cotton secretly, threatening them with termination of employment if they refuse. Gaspar worked for several seasons. In 2016 we published his extensive report from the cotton fields, in particular on how people were transported to the cotton fields in the back of a truck, like cattle. Two days after the publication, the president publicly reprimanded the minister of national security, and the same night Gaspar was arrested. The outcome was 3 years in prison.
“Nurgeldi Halykov was given 4 years in prison for being in touch with independent Turkmen press”
Finally, Nurgeldi Halykov. He was given 4 years in prison for sharing a photo of the World Health Organization delegation to Turkmenistan. Although there was nothing “criminal” about sharing the photo, the fact that he was in touch with independent Turkmen press decided his fate. Nurgeldi Halykov is still in prison. We tried to work with the WHO and the World Bank, but they do not listen to us, nor to other human rights groups.
Do you receive threats?
Occasionally yes. Sometimes I get nasty comments on my website with threats to my relatives who still live in Turkmenistan.
How do you protect yourself?
I take basic precautions like not exposing my home address. I am active on social media, so when I travel to countries with greater risks of being deported to Turkmenistan, kidnapped or killed (e.g. Turkey, Russia, Central Asia, UAE), I don’t post anything before making it home safely.
What makes it worth the fight?
It’s a great pleasure to see that your work is being appreciated by the ordinary Turkmen citizens. After each reporting or investigation, I get hundreds of positive messages from them. For them my work is like a light at the end of a tunnel, it brings hope that one day our beloved homeland will be a great place to live. And for that we need to keep fighting.
Turkmen.News is hosted by Virtualroad.org since 2019.