Who am I to speak for Turkmenistan?
Two days ago, after my most recent appearance on al-Jazeera, I received the following very forthright e-mail from “Tony from San Francisco, California”. I’ve edited out some of the more sensitive data:
My name is —– and I am a Turkmen immigrant in —-. I am a [residency card] holder and reside in the —– but go to Turkmenistan every year. I am a medical student in —–
The reason I am writing you today is to correct your (negligent and shameful) remarks about Internet use in Turkmenistan which appeared on AJStream. Firs of all, YOU DO NOT NEED A PASSPORT to use internet in the internet cafes. A driver license or a college ID is enough. WHen i was there, I always used my —– college ID at the internet cafes and they never made a problem about it. Same applies to TURKMEN and FOreign citizens. Last time i was there (—– 2010), I met 2 Students from —– who were tying to use internet at the cafes and needed help to communicate with the person in charge ( usually a high school graduate) not a POLICE or anything. So i helped those 2 young ladies from —- and all they used was their ID from —–, NOT PASSPORT.
As an educated person, I urge you to research something before you TALK and make any strong statements. I understand all those exaggerations on the internet about TM, and I admit all the mistakes and wrongdoings of our government ( which I am not proud of) as well. However, if you are going to be continuing your NEWEURASIA project, I suggest YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT and ABLE TO PROVIDE PRECISE SOURCES.
At the age of information, I think MISINFORMATION is as much shameful, dangerous and harmful as any other crime. Once again, shame on you
Then, yesterday, a Turkmen colleague whom I deeply respect also criticized the way in which I framed the Abadan event: “sometimes it feels like you are overdoing it with turkmenistan, commodifying the issue.” My colleague had been in Ashgabat when the explosion happened and pointed out to me that they had full Internet access as well as satellite television, following the story via Russian news: “do you know that electricity and water were out for half a day not as long as it was reported? do you know that worse things happened there? and we all knew before you,” adding, “chris, really don’t fetishize the turkmen, don’t overdo it please, i know it’s very common and modernist thing to do.”
Oh boy, there’s a lot going on here, from different cultural and socioeconomic styles of communicating to the whole problem of Orientalism. However, I want to focus on this key point: who am I to speak for Turkmenistan? This is the question/criticism that’s really at stake here, encompassing both the credibility of social media-based citizen journalism and my own credibility as the managing editor of this website and as a journalist, as well as the conceptual issues brought up by these two Turkmen.
To begin with, on the one hand, some of my readers, particularly in the West, might find this a strange question/criticism because, well, who else would speak or is speaking for Turkmenistan? By whatever combination of fate, chance, and choice, I ended up as the man heading up a pretty big and unique citizen journalism organization that covers/involves the Turkmen. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else, and even if that person was a Turkmen, or a half-Turkmen, half-American, straddling two worlds, it wouldn’t matter — the question/criticism could be levelled against that person just as readily.
That’s because the unfortunate reality is that the world insists upon marginalizing Turkmenistan rather than treating it is a society worthy of attention by its own right. My colleague in particular criticized al-Jazeera for not having more coverage of the Abadan explosion. I actually know a little bit about the decision-making process and biases that has led to Central Asia in general, not just Turkmenistan, falling off of the radar on al-Jazeera’s main programs these last several months. However, the team at The Stream weren’t subject to these biases; they wanted to treat Turkmenistan as a country with something to say to the world, and in this case, that message was that repressive governments have a real fight ahead of them when their own citizenries are mobilized and self-informing.
On the other hand, there are real problems with me specifically being the person “representing” Turkmenistan at the moment. For one, note the duality I mentioned above: neweurasia covers/involves Turkmen. What I mean by that is we use digital culture and digital tools to simultaneously report upon Turkmen issues and activate (and hopefully empower) their informational consciousnesses. It’s a real paradox, because actually we’re not quite a “just the facts” regular journalism agency, as we have an element of activism and even mobilization, but we are nonetheless journalists of a sort. The truth is all news media does this, particularly mass media (although they tend to strive for a manufacturing or sedating effect upon consciousness); the difference is that as a citizen journalism organization, we’re hyper-aware of the tension, and we try to embrace it and use it creatively.
For another, I, myself, am a duality, for as a person with very rigorous academic historical and philosophical training, I am aware of the creeping poisons of exoticism and objectification, yet as an intellectual studying the Turkmen, this is precisely what I end up doing — exotifying and objectifying them. Even when I am trying to use myself as conduit for their perspectives, as I tried to do in CyberChaikhana, inevitably I become a filter — try as I might, I haven’t figured out how to either remove Chris Schwartz from the process, and if that proves impossible, I haven’t figure out how to turn that to the Turkmen’s advantage. Indeed, my very aspiration here re-opens the paradox above about marginalization and reporting.
There is also a very solid journalistic problem here. Let’s use the two examples from above. Regarding (a) whether Ashgabat lost its Internet connection during the height of the crisis and (b) whether social media was in a sense going it alone, I have to rely on the word of my blogger, Annasoltan, for (a). As for (b), in my interview on al-Jazeera, I failed to mention the other alternative news sources active alongside teswirler.com at the time. This oversight was due to my own fixation on the social media aspect to the story.
Regarding whether passports must be shown at the entrances of the Internet cafes, the information I have from a plethora of sources both anecdotal and from other organizations observing and collecting information Turkmenistan is that in fact one does need an internal passport to enter (I recall making that distinction on al-Jazeera). I have even heard it said that during the Niyazov era, soldiers were actively stationed outside Internet cafes. Now, I am also aware that this policy (insofar as it can be said to be a policy, it could just be an informal practice emerging from the quiet pressure of authorities) is not uniformly enforced; again, I should have mentioned that. Nevertheless, to make sure I wasn’t misinforming al-Jazeera’s audience, I double-checked with neweurasia‘s Annasoltan. She explained:
“Actually, they do ask passports of people who they want to inspect. Of course, they may do this selectively, asking some people and not asking others. In Turkmenistan rules are never rigidly applied, but it is nevertheless a common daily practice.”
But now take a moment to read me very carefully here: what haven’t I said? That’s right: I have not personally been to an Internet cafe in Turkmenistan to independently verify this myself. In fact, I have not yet stepped foot inside Turkmenistan. I shall leave open the larger philosophical question of whether that should matter — after all, one can reduce any individual’s independent experiences to the status of mere undependable anecdote — but it does point to the weakness of my position as managing editor of this website, the weakness (and controversiality) of the digital medium that this website and I embody, and it may even point to my weaknesses as a journalist. I won’t mince words: my credibility is indeed subject to real debate.
Hopefully some official Turkmen newsman won’t snatch that line out of context and splash it across some page of a state-run newspaper, but actually, in a sense, I am actually talking to the Turkmen government now. I am warning them that neweurasia and I are just easy targets; what they cannot hide from is that the Turkmen people do seem to be getting more information savvy and critical. Whatever the merits or demerits of how I explained the Abadan explosion and social media’s response to it, the fact is social media responded, and it responded well, and my colleague’s remarks point out that the Internet is not the only communication technology the government should be fearing.
And more to the point, the Turkmen don’t need me. As a Baha’i, I have faith that God and the spirit of humanity will work through whoever and whatever they must to achieve universal justice. Turkmenistan’s consciousness will be elevated one way or another, whether I am part of that process or not. So, who am I to speak for Turkmenistan? I’m nobody, in fact. That’s both my strength and weakness, and the strength and weakness of citizen journalism.
Finally, in keeping with the spirit of our medium, I invite our readers, particularly those from Turkmenistan, to leave a comment in response to my remarks here. Feel free to e-mail me, as well.