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Who am I to speak for Turkmenistan?

Written by on Saturday, 16 July 2011
Media and Internet, Turkmenistan
10 Comments
Who speaks for normal Turkmen? Photograph by Flickr user oletommyp (CC-usage).

Who speaks for normal Turkmen? Photograph by Flickr user oletommyp (CC-usage).

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.

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10 Comments »

  • Kara Yang says:

    I also have that criticism on NewEurasia.net too: too much criticism. It seems like NewEurasia is on a mission to destruct current governments, or at least, the government of Turkmenistan: every Turkmen thing here is against government OR in favor of Islam. Like, for istance, I haven’t seen anything about the ongoing BIG issue, Russia and Iran pressing Turkmenistan in Trans-Caspian project.

    Being an opposition cannot be the reason for accepting other parties/news source, etc. I mean, one has to show some kind of originality. Just like the case with Iran: peopel chose Mousavi JUST BECAUSE they were against AhmadiNezhad, and they now see the results: Mousavi was even worse.

    OK:

    “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”

    I again repeat myself: the lack of free or “unbiased” news source from Turkmenistan or Central Asia does not make others, INCLUDING NewEurasia.net, “unbiased” or “fair”. If the goal is broadcaosting FOR Turkmen people and Central Asians and ABOUT them, there are other current issues too, some even bigger, in the region. Like the above-mentioned example: Russia and Iran are working together to prevent or at least delay Turkmenistan’s Trans-Caspian pipleine that will diversify Turkmenistan’s economy. Almost all posts that I have read here are about criticizing Turkmen government, or saying that they are NOT capable of tackling things in a normal way.

    “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.”

    Yes, you’re right. But why not to work together and help change this? Or at least, to show other side of the coin? Please have a look at my blog (as an example). There are LOTS OF problems here in Russia: politically, human rights, etc. And I am NOT a supporter of Russia. But as someone living in Russia, I HAVE TO and MUST admit that there are lots of propaganda too, about the country in Western media. Why can’t we do the same thing about Turkmenistan? Closed political space? Corruption, etc.? I agree with you, but if we criticize them, we should tell the nice points too. I would like to requote you with some changes: world inists on marginalizing Turkmenistan, and we are helping them.

    “ecause 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.”

    Your “element” of activism is well-chosen: people (like dear “AnnaSoltan) who is ONLY criticizing Turkmenistan. So I would say “a chosen element of criticism activism”. Dear AnnaSoltan publishes here biased, “commercialized” posts about religion and Islam and how it helps the country. And when I wrote a LONG reply (citing from Quran itself that is BASE of Islam and Islamic rule, showing the real face of Islam and how harmful it can be towards Turkmenistan and country’s future) to all of “her” religious logs, there is just no reponse. I mean, I don’t really expect from you; the only thing I want to say is that, NewEurasia CHOOSES its content, and it chooses pure criticism and in some cases, those articles and ideas that appeal to West: like expanding religiosity in Central Asia (like what Turkey did for a decade in Central Asia).

    ” 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.

    As a non-religious and a Tangriist (individualism), I have faith that Islam will ONLY ruin Turkmenistan, and that, pure criticism is NOT the way. In fact, because there are many choices when it comes to news from Central Asia, so NewEurasia is able to claim they are the one.

    Reply

  • Kara Yang says:

    I made a mistake in typing:

    In fact, because there are NOT many choices when it comes to news from Central Asia, so NewEurasia is able to claim they are the one.

    Reply

  • Annasoltan says:

    Chris, I welcome the fact that you have openly discussed this topic in a separate post and have opened the floor for some discussion. These issues have been around already for some time, but because Abadan is very emotionally painful for us, negative emotions are much higher at the moment.

    For example, two days ago there was an article by a reporter of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service who along the lines of “What lessons have been learned from the Abadan explosions” (http://www.azathabar.com/content/article/24266099.html). Among other things, the article mentioned that the incident demonstrated the Turkmen authorities inability to deal with real issues. Soon after, this article was posted by a person on teswirler, to which someone else remarked, “Azathabar.com always reports only the negative events and looks only at one side of the issue.” However, the person did not explain what they meant. So, I asked whether, in this particular story, there was anything positive that could be said? They had no clue.

    It is also notable that criticism of the government’s policies from some members of the social chat sites is more devastating than Azathabar’s (or neweurasia‘s). Some people think that reporting needs to be even more critical about our country than it already is. At the same time, there is widespread criticism of foreign press services (generally anything Western and Russian) — but I feel that’s because my countrymen haven’t been trained to be very media literate.

    As a nation, we’re still very new at dealing with foreign attention, independent journalism, and so on (we can get into all the Soviet and post-independence reasons why). They also don’t know how to ask certain questions about journalistic reports: “Does this fit my experience of the event, or the experience of those I know who were there?” “Do I really know what the agenda is of this news organization, or do I only think I know?” “What is the purpose of criticism?” “Why is this considered newsworthy and not other things?” And so on. On Turkmen social sites, I’m always sharing my opinion about diverse articles with some people, explaining why I like this and don’t like that. But my friends often reply, “Hey, you’re quickly changing your mind. You should either like them or you should dislike them altogether. On whose side are you standing?” And they ask it that way because they need a side to choose; black or white, left or right, positive or negative.

    Of course I’m not saying either the media is always completely free of bias or that my people are dumb. I’m saying that more information that’s available is better, and the more my people are exposed to all this information, the better (maybe the media could use some lessons about Turkmen sensitivities, and maybe the Turkmen could use some lessons about media literacy, too).

    One thing though: you tried to explain this, the effects of marginalization, in your post, Chris. But there’s some things you’re missing. First, ultimately our government is at fault. If we had a real free and independent media inside Turkmenistan, we wouldn’t feel so disenfranchised when the outside world is talking about us — we wouldn’t feel like they’re talking for us. We’re marginalizing ourselves, not just being marginalized. And second, as you and I talked about many times, neweurasia is a really different kind of news operation, because it’s both foreign and native, outsider and insider. We probably could be doing better to bring on more voices from everyday Turkmen than just me and our small Turkmenistan team, but we’re also trying to do our best with the human resources we have.

    Reply

  • ibo says:

    @Kara Yang chill, you are going too nuts — is that your work, paid by the Turkmen security services? it really looks like that!!

    Reply

    Kara Yang Reply:

    @ibo, So you think anybody who is against your viewpoint is paid by the Turkmen security services? I’m an Iranian Turkmen.

    Reply

  • Turkmenka says:

    I am a citizen of Turkmenistan. I am studying abroad and used to visit Turkmenistan every summer and every time i went to Internet cafe i have been asked for my passport and yelled twice for trying to use my student ID.

    Reply

  • turkmen says:

    Turkmenistan is still a young country, which has huge lack of human resources.. Country which neighbours to countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan – all of which has it’s own internal and/or international issues which could easily affect my country (turkmenistan).. Turkmenistan is an extremely rich country, which can easily be manipulated in case if it was not such repressive.. Turkmenistan is a country, where you can find dozens of actually illegally acting different religious, political, wierd unofficial groups which are gradually manipulated by some human traffickers, drug traffickers, multinational companies etc. (i do not know why do they exist if it is not the case) .. With such uneducated population , trying to bring democracy to this country will only mean trying to bring chaos to this country (ie. kyrgyzstan)..

    As a citizen of Turkmenistan, not everything happening there is making me proud, but i am not expecting this country to be a USA or some european country overnight.. if you guys expect such thing you are completely dillusional..

    I see a lot of people criticizing my country or government, claiming himself as citizen of turkmenistan or some kinda guy who wants to see my country getting better.. But all they do is to complain (like azatlyk does).. I have not yet seen anyone who considered all these and other unmentioned here circumstances which turkmenistan is surrounded by, and criticized in accordance, and offered solutions or descent political systems or etc.

    Reply

  • Oh, shame on this “unidentified immigrant”. You do have to wonder why it is that a student studying in the US is sending you this sort of tripe — getting to study abroad is a rare privilege even if it involves Russia or Turkey; those precious few who get to go to the United States to study are privilege zolotaya molodyezh’ of the first order, plugged directly into the presidential administration. It’s not the norm; it’s not ordinary. Are propaganda favours extracted in return? Or in fact do people who already clear all the loyalty and political tests involved in something like studying in the US already believe the sort of things that “Tony” does and are happy to write anti-Western screeds?

    There have been constant, verified reports of the requirement of passports in Internet cafes. From Peace Corps. From foreign journalists. From citizens. If it turns out it’s not a passport in some instances, but a driver’s license or other form of idea *gasp*, good Lord, like that makes a difference?! Why is the government or a supposed private company requiring ANY form of IS to use an Internet cafe! That’s not the norm in free and civilized countries! Why didn’t Chris thing of *that*??? “Tony,” um, do you have to show your college ID in an Internet cafe in San Francisco?! I sure don’t here in New York — or in Poland or in lots of other places. In NY, usually you use a credit card in a place like Kinkos, so they might get your name that way, but you can easily buy a pre-stocked debit card and use that if you fear being tracked. In Poland and lots of other places, you pay cash.

    So when this immigrant gets done with his rage fume about “misinformation” and “wrongful facts” he should ask himself why he considers this normal and “ok”. It’s not.

    And I completely reject this identity politics which is yet another holdover from the Soviet system of recognizing not rights and not universality, but “nationalities” and making not universal rights for territories under their rule, but lists of deals and concessions — and encouraging people to think of themselves not as equal before the law, but as needing special dispensations.

    I don’t need to be Turkmen, Russian or any ethnic or national identifiably entity in order to empathize with the lack of rights from which Turkmens suffer.

    Sure, I could remain indifferent to them with their shutoff cell phones and blown up cities and misery. But if I wish to be part of humanity, I will sympathize. Furthermore, *Turkmens themselves* appeal to us to care — just not Turkmens that “Tony” likes. There have been a number of statements issued by Turkmen emigres about this blast, not of the same political persuasion as this immigrant, obviously, as well as appeals issued in the past by people inside the country on various issues, that all have the general theme: hold our government to account, care what happens to us, raise our plight in international fora.

    Really, I call the position Tony is articulating, one of the fashionable anti-Western international left, to be yet another example of “the secret policeman’s ruse”. It’s a distraction from the real hard human rights problems of a country to claim that no one can understand the country or speak about it except its citizens and we’re all supposed to shut up — or follow some heavily scripted PC agenda — before we can utter anything about Turkmenistan.

    The Helsinki Accords repudiated the Soviet notion that human rights are an internal matter. The Soviet Union conceded this when it signed the 1975 Helsinki Act. That meant ever after, the Western countries could and did raise the human rights problems of these countries, and frankly, that’s part of what led them to change. Today, so cynically does Russia, for example, recognize this concept that whenever somebody asks about a journalist arrested or murdered in Russia, the Russians in OSCE try to cook up an equivalent, and ask about journalists accompanying demonstrators on to the White House lawn and being detained by police for trespassing.

    As for “commodifying the issue,” oh for Christ’s sake. Like anybody blogging for free or for at best low fees is somehow “commodifying news”? That’s ridiculous. Disasters get covered all over the world normally, by mainstream and alternative press. You don’t see Russians claiming anybody is “commodifying” their boat disaster, now, do you? Because while they might have made that claim in their communist past, they’ve given up that nonsense today.

    As for Al Jazeera, I have little use for them, as I’ve covered how they are manipulative and biased and for the trendy Western left, ALJ is more about an totemic force to beat up political groups in their own countries, not really something in its own right. The Central Asian countries exist for ALJ only as a sort of place d’armes where they can peddle their line of wicked West and noble Arab freedom movements of a certain type. Sometimes what happens to Muslims in these countries fits their line of an evil West or evil Western-backed authoritarians; other times, it doesn’t suit them if Qatar has business there. The Arab world, including Qatar, has a great deal to do with the oil and gas industry of Turkmenistan; if you’re going to mount the corporate conspiracy theories of the left, not something I do myself, wouldn’t you start asking whether Arab energy interests in Central Asia might explain Al Jazeera’s reticence? At a certain point, ALJ always pulls back where those interests collide (Syria, obviously, about which they are immorally silent, and even Belarus, about which they are “strategic”).

    And where is this “world” that insists on “marginalizing” Turkmenistan? It gets a fair amount of coverage every day, if for no other reason than its gas. The antics of its dictator also draw coverage. It would be nice to report more on ordinary people and their concerns, but hey, first the hermit kingdom would have to start issuing press visas and letting domestic and foreign press wander around more freely for that to happen.

    I’m going to definitely signal the queasy-inducing factor and creepyness of having a mission called “activating informational consciousness.” Ick. Could you just blog or cover the news? Media does so poorly when you impose a social agenda on it.

    I personally don’t worry about the um, “poisons of exoticism and objectification” because as I keep saying: are we not to cock and eyebrow at a dove landing on Berdymukhamedov’s shoulder? We’re supposed to shut up? We’re supposed to say nothing, because we’re not authentic Turkmen-blooded individuals, worried how this might be “exploited”? We’re deprived of a decent, human, universal reaction to such nonsense, not to mention a 1,000 other outrages, because we’re evil Westerners? Sorry, no sale.

    You don’t need to cook up any extended religious doctrine to cover the news in Turkmenistan and comment on the obvious. Indeed, if you hear of another human being’s misery; if they ask you to help, you have a duty to respond.

    Reply

  • Annasoltan,

    I don’t accept your role as sole interpreter and spokesperson for “my countrymen”. That is, you only speak for some constituency that may actually share the views you have as an emigre in a certain political camp, but you don’t speak for all Turkmens as any cursory reading of the various Internet sites covering Turkmenistan tells us.

    There was a positive side to Abadan?! That is, not that courageous people covered this awful thing — that’s always good news — but some…other…”more authentic” side that involved, oh, valiant and glorious Turkmen emergency workers? I don’t think so.

    There’s a Russian saying: “Don’t blame the mirror if you have a crooked face.”

    Foreign news services report on the excesses of the dictator Berdymukhamedov, who is shaping up to preside over a personality cult that is milder than Niyazov’s, but still very troublesome. They report on oil and gas, because, that’s what the government does, sell hydrocarbons. They report on people being locked up and tortured and Turkmen delegations ducking and weaving at UN meetings. All these things are *true* and *factual*, Annasoltan. If you think there’s some Western media conspiracy to “misinform” or “distort” Turkmen reality (sounds like something the Turkmen Foreign Ministry would say!), by all means, share. Let’s see a story you think is actually *false*. As distinct from telling a negative truth about your country you wince at.

    To be sure, there is a tendency with some news outlets and bloggers to pick up a huge snark in their description of Turkmenistan because of its absurdities, and that belies the real pain of citizens and the bravery of people struggling against it, but you know, the media’s role is not to be a pamphlet from Amnesty International or the Socialist Workers’ Party, but to serve as an outlet for diverse news and views, and this is the ready form it takes. What, there’s *not* something funny about the president’s yacht?!

    And again, if you want the foreign media to have more happy little stories about women’s micro-credit schemes, or whatever it is you think would constitute authentic “people’s news,” then they have to have more access. Right now, they have almost none.

    Your notion that foreign news agencies have “agendas” is one that seems to have been developed mainly by projection and mirror-imaging of the state-manipulated Turkmen press. Er, evil Murdoch (if one of his papers bothers to report on Turkmenistan) is supporting evil Western oil companies? Or…how does that work? Again, try to supply an example instead of just spouting the line here.

    You’re right that the government is the first to marginalize and that ultimately explains the root of all the evils you condemn. Yet…you mention this last. And you recite all the usual international leftist cant about foreign news agencies “with agendas” before you get to this actual admission.

    Every day, chrono-tm.org *does* report on ordinary people. People whose houses were bulldozed by the authorities in presidentially-dictated renovation campaigns. People whose market stalls were swept away by government renovators. People whose Uzbek brides in Uzbek-predominant areas are forcibly deported back to Uzbekistan. People forced to stand for hours without being able to go to the bathroom or eat, with their children, greeting the president in some little town somewhere. Why aren’t these ordinary people authentic enough for you, Annasoltan! Why can’t you accept that *is* reporting on the little people!

    Reply

  • [...] July, I published a post on a neweurasia entitled, “Who am I to speak for Turkmenistan?” When I began writing it, I had intended it to be a self-critical response to criticisms raised [...]

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