PC: 2019 World Press Freedom Index (rsf.org) *The chart above shows the purity of press freedom on a scale of light-to-dark.
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain
Earlier this week, a news channel funded by the government of Türkmenistan reported that the Swedish-Turkmen writer and journalist, Ak Welsapar, had died. Welsapar is the leading journalist of the alternative Turkmen broadcast known as Erkin Türkmenistan. One can only imagine Welsapar’s thoughts at the moment when he--- alive and well in his home—joined the ranks of other famous figures, such as Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel, who also personally read the fake news of their own death.
While Gündogar News claimed that Ak Welsapar had been a COVID-19 causality, the man himself appeared on the channel he founded to confront the false news of his own passing. Indeed, he is very much alive. However, this is not the first time in which Welsapar has been targeted by media outlets funded by his country of origin, nor has he been their only target. For example, anyone searching for the Central Asian opposition channel “Gundogar” on google is likely to be met with both the real channel (Gundogar.org) and its state-funded mimic (Gundogarnews.com). The latter is under the full control of the government of Türkmenistan and was created with the sole purpose of undermining oppositionist media. In effect, the elaborate claim that Ak Welsapar had died is one of the many ongoing and aggressive acts directed against both the journalist himself as well as to the very idea of press freedom.
This is no new tactic of course, but it spins the public into heaps of confusion. To make matters more complicated, the channel which Ak Welsapar founded, Erkin Türkmenistan, is also plagued by state lookalikes trying to discredit independent media reporting in the region. The situation of Welsapar’s channel is arguably even more misleading because the mimic is so visually identical that not even a single in the letter differs—even in the title. Technically, no two YouTube channels can share the same name if one is taken already, however, this rule appears to have been side-stepped. There are several ways that this might be possible. One potential explanation is that YouTube may allow similar content so long it is created via a different email. Another, possibly more plausible explanation, is the selective use of Russian characters in title creation. There are four distinct letters [E, T, M, A] which exist in the title, Erkin Türkmenistan, that appear visually identical regardless of whether they are typed in Turkmen, English, or Russian in both upper and lower case. If any of these letters were to be typed using the Cyrillic keyboard setting and inserted into one of six possible places, the title would register as a “different” word (and thereby passable) while looking exactly the same to prospective viewers. The net result is that this impersonation is an unresolved violation perpetrated on the pettiest of dictatorial governmental grounds.
The imitation channel has even gone so far as to “borrow” the former cover photo of Welsapar’s broadcast which features the statue of the founder of Turkmenistan Republic in the USSR (Gündogar News, 2020). It appears that the very existence of Erkin Türkmenistan as a widely followed independent news channel has disturbed the repressive regime to the extent that they have created a new genre of “video curses” which target anyone not reflecting official views.
An unprecedented 216 “video curses” proliferate on the government channel. In each, a different “volunteer” presents. These compliant persons were likely threatened with the loss of the jobs if they did not participate.Speaking persons are selected so as to give the appearance that people from every corner of the nation are against the journalist, Ak Welsapar. The speakers of the videos include students, doctors, teachers, as well as a mix of both average citizens and highly respected people. The fake channel also takes advantage of the fact that, in Türkmen culture, the word of the wizened and elderly is respected as an unwritten social law.Endorsing such cultural “laws” allows the fake channels to gain traction. One such video even references this cultural facet immediately prior to claiming, “Welsapar cannot understand that culture, that law.” Elderly, sage-like, and religious persons are the most respected; They hold the highest social position in the eyes of much of Türkmen society. More than 10 Hajis (religious pilgrims who have gone to Mecca) are featured speaking in the fabricated videos.
Likewise, because both internet-access and political freedoms are so limited within Türkmenistan, it is also quite possible that most of the informants cited by Gündogar News, the imposter Erkin Türkmenistan, and other gov-funded imitations have never heard of Ak Welsapar or his channel. It is by threatening and paying random people to imprecate their countrymen that the most recent object of their slander is exiled journalist Ak Welsapar, a voice which 28.3k growing subscribers have tuned in to listen.
In short, the government channel’s most recent false death announcement casts yet deeper shadows on the dubious credibility of Türkmenistan’s national media. Since its nationhood following the fall of the USSR, Türkmenistan is perennially ranked at the bottom of all freedom related indices. In the most recent Reporters Without Borders 2019 Press Freedom Index, Türkmenistan was ranked dead last out of 180 countries---worse than Eritrea (178) and North Korea (179). As one of the most repressive nations in the modern world, both domestic and foreign journalists actively engage in self-censorship for the sake of their own safety as well as that of their loved ones.
It is little wonder that Ak Welsapar, acclaimed journalist and author of more than 20 books, poses as a threat to the government of Türkmenistan. The very name of his independent news broadcast, Erkin Türkmenistan translates to Free Turkmenistan, a philosophy that fundamentally does not comply with the administration’s tight-fisted policies. Welsapar’s capacity to write and publish in Turkmen, Russian, Swedish, and English has allowed him to extend his sphere of influence globally--- a fact which has most likely left his government shaking in their bootstraps.
In spite of this repression, Welsapar wields immense influence over those Turkmen in Türkemistan who have access to the internet as well as Turkmen ex-pats around the globe. Ironically, this media assault may have actually increased Welsapar’s popularity. However, this almost comic governmental miscalculation is metered by the fact that death announcement was clearly a calculated move. Thus, the true agenda of Gündogar News false report remains uncertain.
In short, the battle for press freedom continues as the “video curse” tantrums continue to assail those who do not parrot “nationally correct” opinions.In this context,lead journalist, Ak Welsapar, founder of Erkin Türkmenistan. like other brave journalists of dictatorial countries, continues to report to the people of Türkmenistan without missing a beat.