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More and more Turkmen residents both in Turkmenistan and outside its borders are discontent with the fact that the programs broadcast by the RFE/RL Turkmen Service are becoming less and less newsworthy and the radio station itself less free and more dependent. Who and what from?
Those who have collaborated with Radio Azatlyk have their own opinion with regard to what is going on. In January they submitted an open letter to the RFE/RL President. Their letter is quoted below.
In May 2013 a group of human rights defenders from Central Asia countries came up with an open statement asking acting President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kevin Klose to set up an independent commission to study the situation in Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen and Turkmen Services of Radio Liberty.
Today the Chairman of the opposition socio-political movement “Vatan” Khudaiberdy Orazov will share his opinion about the situation at the radio station.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan: It is common knowledge that recently some respondents have been boycotting the RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, and you are among them. Could you please explain your viewpoint?
Khudaiberdy Orazov: I must say that I am not aware of any boycott agreement, in any case I am not involved in any of these agreements. I have not refused and still do not refuse to give interviews to the Turkmen Service of Radio Liberty, make comments about events and discuss problems. I think the question is that the working methods of Radio Azatlyk has somewhat changed.
CT: The question then arises – before your voice was often heard at this radio station – you gave interviews and commented on some events. How was the situation back then, when you collaborated with the radio service, different from today?
KO: Yes, that’s really the case. I used to be actively involved in various discussions on Radio Azatlyk. Then the situation started changing and I would like to highlight that everything did not change overnight after the new President of the Turkmen Service took office, as it is being discussed now. On the contrary, this was a step-by-step process when we witnessed that there were less unbiased information and critique of the Turkmen reality which was gradually replaced by more loyal reports. If I am not mistaken, this happened after G. Berdymukhammedov’s rise to power when the West changed its tactics towards Turkmenistan in the hope of positive reforms. In other words, they did not want to irritate Berdymukhammedov by stating the fact that the situation was appalling. Interviews with members of the opposition to the regime were broadcast less frequently. It was at that time when the attitude of reporters towards covering social, economic and domestic issues of Turkmenistan changed. Instead of comments, opinions and interviews, a genre of question and answers session appeared and moreover, sometimes it required only “yes” and “no” answers. The working methods used by Radio Liberty resembled puzzle plays. I believe that it is absolutely wrong as we are hiding the core of a problem even deeper. I think that the journalists’ methods which in is turn neutralized the credibility the radio station used to have, resulted in a decision to change the executive of the radio service. Therefore, it is unfair to shift the blame for bad quality of programs to new leaders as the newly-appointed editor “inherited” the service with conspicuous shortcomings and problems.
CT: Apart from interviewers, the staff members of the Turkmen service are also discontent. They submitted an open letter to the executives and accused the President of the Turkmen Service in being incompetent, loyal to the Turkmen reality and using censorship. Do you agree with these statements?
KO: Yes, I am familiar with this address and can state that it was signed by many renowned Turkmen residents who work directly from Turkmenistan and have never closely dealt with either former or present executive. I believe that there might have been misunderstanding or the wrong assessment of the situation – what I have already said – that the situation has been exacerbating day after day, year after year. Now it has timed to coincide with the appointment of the new executive at the radio station. I used to give an interview to Muhammad Takhir and I did not notice any big difference between him and other journalists. I am sorry that my opinion does not concur with the viewpoint of the Turkmen Service staff that I deeply respect and consider to be very courageous people. Yet, I want to be as sincere as possible in this situation. “Azatlyk” shortcomings which the staff members are discussing now, have not been “invented” by new executives but are the result of persistent and gradually degrading quality of the programs. It is not quite correct to blame the new executive in being incompetent and unaware of the Turkmen reality as the radio station was also run by a European, who did not speak Turkmen and had never been to Turkmenistan, but nevertheless the station operated very well.
CT: Let us then define the problem. What has happened with the Turkmen Service of Radio Liberty? What is the problem? Why was the situation much better than now? It is indeed one of the leading radio stations which quite promptly responded to the events in the country.
KO: The situation deteriorated after the western community had chosen a wait-and-see approach which affected all areas. After Berdymukhammedov came to power I repeatedly heard behind the scenes that he needed time to demonstrate what he was capable of and there should have been less critique and pressure on him. What is the result? The situation in Turkmenistan did not improve and a taciturn wait-and-see position of the international community brought about its results.
CT: Do you think that the Turkmen Service became more cautious after a correspondent of Radio Liberty Ogulsapat Muradova died in custody in 2006?
KO: I am speaking about the time when I started paying attention to the changes taking place at the radio station. Probably this sad story also had an effect on the tactics that Radio “Azatlyk” reporters used. Nobody has the right to put people’s lives at risk and take responsibility for their health and safety.
CT: Does this mean that you are ready to resume or continue your cooperation with the radio station?
KO: Needless to say, I am open for communication with radio “Azatlyk”. I understand how important this radio station is for Turkmenistan as it provides important and truthful information about their own country to Turkmen residents.
CT: Do you see any alternative to “Azatlyk” at the present moment or in the future?
KO: Regrettably, for the time being I do not see any alternative to Radio “Azatlyk” in the region. It was quite a popular radio station before and is still popular now. They have always had a good broadcasting coverage and an extensive pool of correspondents inside the country. Moreover, the radio broadcasts in the Turkmen language which is also an advantage. It appears to me that realizing all shortcomings which surfaced as years went by and at the same time recognizing the importance of the radio station, the executives should treat the radio station in a more careful manner in order to preserve “Azatlyk” as a source of information for the country where one-man rule is rampant.
Open Letter to President of RFE/RL
January 28, 2013
Dear President Kevin Klose:
We, the journalists, contributors and friends of Radio Azatlyk, are writing to express our deep concerns over the recent layoffs in the RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service and protest against irregularities that have been taking place in the station since Mr. Muhammad Tahir has been assigned to lead the Service.
We claim that RFE/RL’s top management made a fatal mistake of appointing an incompetent, not qualified individual, whose knowledge about Turkmenistan, its political, cultural, economic situation and language is very limited. Furthermore, he lacks of basic management skills. The evidence is his dictatorship method of leading the Service through intimidation, threatening to silence and practicing censorship. He might be qualified more in writing stories about Afghanistan or Pakistan.
The Turkmen Service is one of the few services in RFE/RL with no bureau in its target country, Turkmenistan. We, the correspondents and contributors, reporting from the country are under constant surveillance and persecution by the Turkmen authorities and work under difficult circumstances. Despite this, the director of the Turkmen Service mistreats us by dictating orders and ignoring our concerns. In one of his responses to the proposal to analyze the problems faced in Turkmenistan, he had stated, “I have no business with Turkmenistan. I am here to fulfill the directions of the senior management. If you do not follow those directions, we will revoke your employment contract.” It is through such threats he and his regional supervisor Mr. Abbas Djavadi impose fear amongst the employees.
We claim that we are not opponents of new media. We are ready for collegial work. But we were sidelined in developing the reasonable strategy for the Turkmen audience. As a result the imposed by the top management the current “reconstruction” and “modernization” strategy damaged the mission of Radio Azatlyk. The current programming with “youth oriented” directives of the leadership compromised the station’s important mission.
We know the traditional audience of Radio Azatlyk lost its only source for alternative information when it shut down its most popular radio programs. We are sad that Radio Azatlyk turned out into the media that reminds us the old Soviet time regional level media outlet.
We do welcome the new strategy of the top management to generate more young audience by expanding online, mobile, and social media offerings, but it would be successful if the management talks to the local experts and involves us to the discussion of the new policies. Unfortunately, we were ignored. In the result of such inadequate approach Radio Azatlyk lost its reputation among its main audience. The modernization strategy should be carried on not to the prejudice of the mission of Radio Azatlyk.
We claim that the current leadership of the Turkmen Service has failed to provide clear vision and leadership in programming. Almost 40-50% of one hour radio program covers international news stories, which are easily available by other news outlets through satellite channels, while original domestic stories are lost among other translated pieces.
This being said, the current leadership of the Turkmen Service under the direct supervision of Mr. Djavadi has banned the use of analysis and commentaries to the events taking place in Turkmenistan. Thus, the local contributors, who have risked their lives reporting in dangerous environments, have been disregarded and sidelined. In consequence, this threatens RFE/RL’s mission of promoting democracy and human rights, and also the image of the USA. We ask you to intervene in order to restore the image of Radio Azatlyk as a messenger of democratic values.
We claim that the leadership of the Turkmen Service failed in its personnel policy. Five out of eight broadcasters and web editors were forced to resign or left in protest. Moreover, several freelance contracts were terminated. The newly recruited young freelancers’ contributions are far from meeting the needs of the Turkmen audience. We urge you to reinstate those experienced journalists who wish to continue to carry on their mission at the station.
Turkmenistan being one of the ‘worst of the worst’ countries in terms of freedom of speech has been left vulnerable due to the lack of quality in reporting that has been caused due to the alarming decrease in the number of employees working on both the web and radio platforms.
The Turkmen Service’s previous unique programing had visible results in promoting the radio’s mission. To illustrate, reporting from the deadly explosion in Abadan near the capital, Ashgabat, in July 2011 had forced the Turkmen government, for the first time, to admit the previously rejected incident that had actually took place and provided the victims with assistance. The Abadan incident since became the foundation for cooperation between the Turkmen people and Radio Azatlyk. Unfortunately, the current leadership in the Turkmen Service had destroyed this hard-earned achievement.
We know that the crisis in the Turkmen Service is a big part of the problem of RFE/RL’s management and it is this crisis that hurts the image of RFE/RL as a messenger of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
We urge you, Mr. President, to save the Turkmen Service from serious damage and solve the personnel issues as soon as possible. We don’t want to be co-participants of the tabloid programs. This is not an ultimatum, but suggestion. We boycott Radio Azatlyk until our demands are met.
We thank all American taxpayers for their generous support of Radio Azatlyk.
Ashyrkuli Bayriev, independent journalist, winner of 2010 David Burke’s award
Rakhim Esenov, novelist, historian, veteran contributor for RFE/RL Turkmen Service, owner of a Freedom to Write award from PEN American Center
Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, independent journalist, contributor for RFE/RL Turkmen Service, Grantee of the Human Rights Watch 2012 Hellman/Hammet
Tirkesh Jumageldi, writer, owner of National award named after Magtymguly
Yaylym Begow, local analyst
Hudayberdi Bagyew, Doctor of Philology, scientist
Osman Hallyew, freelance correspondent at RFE/RL Turkmen Service
Soltan Achylowa, freelance correspondent at RFE/RL Turkmen Service
Sazak Durdymyradow, civic activist, contributor for RFE/RL Turkmen Service
Gurbandurdy Durdykulyew, civic activist, contributor for RFE/RL Turkmen Service
Akmyrat Atayew, local analystbyny