03/10/2007, 00.00
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At the Internet Cafe with soldiers at the door

Pledges made by the government during the electoral campaign have “apparently” been maintained: new Internet Cafes are opened in Ashgabat. But under what conditions? Unstable connections, payments for entry and the “company” of armed soldiers.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews) –The initial enthusiasm which greeted the opening of internet cafe’s in Turkmenistan is on the wane.  They had been promoted by President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov who had concentrated his campaign promises on increasing internet access. It was hoped that these Cafes would represent a positive step ahead compared to the repressive policies of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006. Since it’s inception in 1990, Niyazov’s regime suffocated freedom of religion and press, crushed political and civil liberties and favoured corruption.   His dictatorship was based on cult propaganda: in schools the study of his book “Ruhnama” (“Saint”) was obligatory, public propaganda referred to him as a prophet and he took pride of place in prefaces to prayers.  He changed the names of months and weeks and even his own to Turkmenbashi (Father and guide of Turkmen people), and insisted that his rule be remembered as the “golden era”.


In Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, the Internet Cafes found on the crowded streets of the Gulustan bazar guarantee access to the World Wide Web even for foreign words, but – as the online agency EurasiaNet.org reports – in reality it’s quite a different matter.  After only three weeks, the irregularity of the internet connections, the high prices demanded for access to the net and the most “discouraging” aspect of soldiers guarding entrance to them, distinguish these Cafes.  Within the Cafes two Turkmenis stare into the empty blue screen of their computers while the shop assistant checks out if and when the net connection will be available the following day.  Few Turkmenis are aware of the existence of these Cafes and many are sceptical of them.  Prices for access stand at 50 thousand manta an hour, a little over 10 dollars according to official exchange rates, 2 dollars 50 cents according to black market rates. A man who works in a nearby market said “I know that there is an Internet Café near here but I’ve never seen it”. A postal worker suggested to try one of the many four star hotels in Ashgabat, where access is available to tourist travelling through the city but not Turkmeni citizens.


The opening of these Internet Cafes was meant to represent a way of speeding up the modernization of the gas rich central Asian state, but this desire for modernization is in contrast with the government’s even stronger desire to maintain its central control on information.


According to the word on the streets, Turkmenistan plan to take on Chinese experts to install monitors for Internet access across the country, but media and civil rights organisations are critical of the regime.  Many doubts remain: the initiative could be destined to protect Turkmeni people from access to illegal or obscene sites, or it could be a manoeuvre to prevent access to sites set up by Turkmeni political refugees.


Erika Dailey, director of the Turkmenistan Project at the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI), said “The technical and security issues surrounding Internet access will be a measure of There has been a lot of hopeful rhetoric and encouraging remarks from President Berdymukhamedov, but these have mostly concerned economics and a few social reforms…..”


According to the United States Department of State’s 2007 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the government-run Turkmen Telecom, Turkmenistan’s sole Internet Service Provider, has not set up an Internet account in Ashgabat since 2002. Cable television has been banned since 2002; satellite TV has become an increasingly popular way for Turkmens to gain information about the outside world, though the relatively high cost of antennae has limited use outside of Ashgabat. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook in 2005, some 36,000 people, or just 0.7 percent of the country’s estimated total population, had Internet access.

One Ashgabat city resident commented “Some people have regular easy access to the Internet but that’s because they work at foreign firms. Even then you would never use it for anything really personal or controversial. Everybody knows it is monitored”. The soldiers stationed outside Ashgabat’s Internet cafes only underline that situation. Said the OSI Turkmenistan Project’s Dailey: “It sends a clear message to the public about what the government wants: They don’t want people using the Internet.”

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