Demolition of satellite dishes in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

(Berlin) – Turkmen authorities have expanded their campaign to remove private satellite dishes from private homes in residential areas even where the satellites are not readily visible, Human Rights Watch said today.

In March 2015, authorities began forcing residents to remove their satellite dishes from apartment buildings on main streets in Ashgabat, the capital, under the pretext of “city beautification.” The forcible dismantling of hidden satellite dishes outside the city center underscores the conclusion that the campaign is not about aesthetics but is an attempt to impose a de facto ban on satellites to limit access to independent sources of information provided by satellite television and radio.

“The Turkmen authorities’ persistent efforts to block access to alternative sources of information violate the right to access to information and freedom of speech,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This absurd campaign should stop immediately and for good.”

A source in Turkmenistan told Human Rights Watch that from May 5 to 7, local housing authorities in Ashgabat ordered residents of several residential neighborhoods located away from main streets and outside the city center to remove their satellite dishes.

On May 2 and 3, a local district police officer visited residents on Erevanskaya Street, in the Gazhi district of Ashgabat, to inventory private satellites.

Police made similar visits in residential areas of predominantly one- and two-story houses in Annau, Abadan, Geok-Tepe, suburbs of Ashgabat, and in Mary, in southern Turkmenistan. Local housing authorities, in some cases accompanied by local district police officers, “recommended” that residents switch to state cable TV packages. The authorities warned that the satellite dishes would be removed in any case and threatened residents with fines of 400-500 Turkmen manat (US$116-$145) if they did not “voluntarily” remove their satellite dishes within a month.

The authorities followed up by destroying the satellite dishes. This unnecessary measure supports the conclusion that the real aim of the campaign is to restrict access to diverse and independent sources of information, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 15, residents of an apartment building in Ashgabat observed a group of people who did not identify themselves using a crane to remove and destroy satellite dishes from the roof. They did not give advance warning or ask residents to remove the dishes voluntarily. Some residents discovered that their satellite dishes had been removed only when they lost the signal and went to the roof to examine their dishes. Some residents removed their satellites themselves to prevent them from being destroyed.

“Private satellite dishes are an important tool for people in Turkmenistan to combat their isolation from the world,” Denber said. “Turkmenistan’s key international partners should express strong concern over this attack on press freedom and access to information.”