Last week a hurricane tore through eastern Turkmenistan’s Lebap and Mary provinces. It was one of the country’s worst natural disasters in almost 10 years. But as residents struggle to bury their dead and repair homes, state and state-affiliated, privately-owned media have maintained a deafening silence.
Turkmenistan has no media freedoms – state media dominates, and the authorities block most independent and Western outlets. Authorities also try to intimidate people from reporting on unsettling or controversial news by jailing them on bogus charges, using proxies to assault them, and threatening their extended families.
Authorities have tried to prevent residents from sharing visuals documenting the hurricane’s destruction. Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, a Prague-based group, spoke with a woman who security service held for 2 days, together with 29 others, accusing them of sending videos “abroad.” The same group also received reports that security services held another 19 women for the same reason in Turkmenabad, Lebap’s capital, releasing them May 3. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights said police are watching for people in cars filming the damage on their cell phones.
Turkmen authorities’ censorship and efforts to prevent information on the harms sustained from becoming public makes it difficult to accurately assess the damage and casualties. Radio Liberty said it confirmed 30 deaths. Turkmen news spoke with a medical official who estimated 300 dead in Turkmenabad. It seems most buildings in the city have been damaged. Smaller towns have been badly damaged by the winds and flooding. Videos are circulating of roofless homes and severe damage inside.
For years, Lebap province has had chronic shortages of food, with staples sold at state-subsidized prices, and scattered reports indicate this problem has deteriorated. This could worsen food insecurity for people living in poverty.
Utilities were restored in parts of Turkmenabad and some, but not all, towns. Conscripts are clearing debris. The authorities might make construction materials available at discounted prices, and one source reported local authorities are rushing residents to repair their homes.
Some reports indicate the authorities may withhold civil servant’ wages for one month to pay for disaster relief.
Turkmenistan’s priorities should never include hunting down people filming news in their region, but particularly now in the wake of a disaster, the priority should be making effective and comprehensive efforts to bring aid to all who need it.