Turkmenistan: War on Satellite Dishes

antenna2April 24, 2015, Human Right Watch

(New York) — Authorities in Turkmenistan are forcing residents to dismantle privately owned satellite dishes, Human Rights Watch said today. A move that unjustifiably interferes with the right to receive and impart information and ideas, this serves to further isolate people in Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world, from independent sources of news and information.

At the end of March, 2015, local housing authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs started ordering residents of multistory apartment buildings to take down their satellite dishes, citing simply an “order from above” that allegedly stated the dishes ruined the view of the city. Authorities told residents they could instead get cable television packages through the government or state satellite antennae.

“Satellite television is the last lifeline to the outside world for people in Turkmenistan,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop its strong-arm tactics to restrict freedom of expression and let people choose their own news and entertainment sources.”

Some residents had used their satellite dishes to receive Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen language service of the US-funded Radio Liberty, the only source of Turkmen-language alternative news available in the country. Without privately owned satellite dishes, residents have no access to Radio Azatlyk.

The satellite removal campaign began with apartment buildings close to main roads, and fanned out from there. Housing authorities in Abadan and Anau, both on the outskirts of Ashgabat, and most recently in Dashoguz, in northern Turkmenistan have also ordered residents to remove satellite dishes.

A source in Turkmenistan told Human Rights Watch that after many residents refused to remove their dishes, in several locations in and around Ashgabat, unidentified people set about destroying satellite dishes. Several people told this source that they had seen these crews destroying satellite dishes in Abadan and Anau.

On April 19 the source saw a group of young people set about breaking satellite dishes on the roof of an apartment building with about 42 dishes. Some of the dish owners, he said, managed to intervene to remove their dishes and prevent them from damage. A photograph he shared with Human Rights Watch shows 16 satellite dishes on one part of the building’s rooftop, all of which have been broken.

This is the third time in four years that the government has sought to force people to abandon satellite television. A government attempt in 2007 to dismantle satellite dishes failed due to an international outcry. Then in August 2011 President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered that government cable TV packages substitute satellite dishes, but the order was not enforced.

Turkmenistan does not allow media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. The government controls virtually all print and electronic media; Internet access remains heavily state-controlled; and many websites are blocked, including those of foreign news organizations. The government is known to monitor electronic and telephone communications. The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Turkmenistan is a party, has explicitly warned governments against state monopoly control over the media and reinforced their obligation to promote plurality of the media.

“Totally cutting off people from independent sources of information is yet another, significant step backward, even for the Turkmen government,” Denber said. “Turkmenistan’s international partners should urgently call on the government to stop this campaign.”

The provider for the cable television packages offered to residents is Turkmentelekom, the state telecommunications company. While the packages contain about 100 channels, they are mostly entertainment channels and notably do not include news channels that would convey any kind of criticism of the Turkmen government. State-owned satellite packages likewise do not carry channels that would have information in any way critical of the government.

Moreover, the government can shut off cable television at any time, and did so in 2011 to prevent news about an accidental explosion at a munitions warehouse in the city of Abadan. The government monopoly on the internet and cellular telephones means that all telecommunications can be subjected to arbitrary and total shut-downs, Human Rights Watch said.

In recent months state media began extolling the benefits of cable television and criticizing the proliferation of satellite dishes and how they diminish the beauty of Ashgabat.

“No one believes this is really about aesthetics,” Denber said “Perhaps if the government stopped censoring the media and internet, there would be fewer satellite dishes.”