You’re welcome in Turkmenistan, Prof. Habermas
NewEurasia’s Annasoltan has become somewhat well-known in media studies because of her work on Turkmenistan’s mediascape. I’ve been reading some of the things she’s written, like “State of Ambivalence: Turkmenistan in the Digital Age” (which I think ended up being cited by Freedom House) and her really cyberutopian (but very inspiring) post “OtherTube, PseudoBook, and the fate of the world in Turkmenistan”. The Americans always say they want to add their “two cents” to an issue; I want to add my two teňňesi.
It is my belief that, of all the factors which contribute to the development of a country, media is the most important because of its far-reaching impact on society. Specifically, development is aided by a media which is committed to the truth, honest about its subjectivity, advocates on behalf of the public, and supports society’s cultural and scientific advancement. Any media which makes government approval its priority or is closed to the public fails to satisfy these needs. That is because independent, private media and democracy move along parallel tracks.
There’s a German philosopher named Jürgen Habermas who has written about the emergence of the public sphere in the West, which became the basis for democracy and which was fostered by media. In brief, history seems to suggest that countries with developed private media outlets tend to be more democratic than countries without sufficient private media. Public government-owned media, on the other hand, typically shrouds its message in an unfair bias for government agendas. As one reviewer puts it,
“[Cf.] Habermas’s 1963 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, [in which he] examined the rise of public opinion and print culture in the eighteenth century. Habermas recognized that the explosion of the print industry—newspapers, pamphlets, and books—began to exert a powerful influence on political life separate from the traditional ruling agency exerted by the king, the aristocracy, and the parliament. For Habermas, it was not simply the growth of publishing that created the public sphere—it was the simultaneous dawn of a kind of consciousness that the public could be systematically addressed through a pamphlet as if a group of strangers were gathered together in a giant auditorium. Habermas saw this imaginary ‘public sphere’ as a potential democratic utopia where individuals could discuss national issues and come to common consent in public.”
When Turkmenistan became independent, we had only three television channels, all of which were publicly owned by the government. Today, Turkmenistan has a whopping total of seven channels, all of which, again, are owned by the government (*uncomfortable cough). Three broadcast the news; one broadcats reports in seven languages (okay, that’s kind of impressive); one focuses on sports; and one plays music.
Back in 1992, also had, very very briefly, two privately owned news publications, jpegs of which Annasoltan has published here and here. Today, none. The majority of Turkmenistanis have no interest in Turkmen newspapers, which are only read (by force) in classrooms by teachers (especially Mugallym and Nesil) [Ed.: Turkmenistani newspapers also tend to run the same content verbatim]; instead, they turn to Zaman, a Turkish newspaper with branches in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and our country.
Well, officially there is Rysgal, the weekly newspaper of the Turkmenistan Association of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (which, as watchers of our country know, served as the institutional bedrock for our official “second” political party, [Ed.: and which has a creepy resemblance to how Atatürk tried to do the same thing during the Great Depression]). It started coming out in mid September 2010.
The big announcement was what prompted Annasoltan’s posts. That’s because, in the words of the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, “[...] Rysgal cannot be referred to as an independent publication [because] it is a semi-official newspaper and entrepreneurs are not authorized to publish their materials (it says that the editorial board does not respond to and review letters)”. It’s more fake pluralism, fake liberalism, what Annasoltan has called the theatrics of freedom.
Nevertheless, as of 2011 (the last time anyone was paying attention) Rysgal‘s circulation was 5100 copies, and it sold for 1 manat — and, truth be told, it sold well. By the end of 2010, over had been published. But at that moment, the editor-in-chief was replaced by a non-journalist who had worked in the Association in charge of organizing exhibitions, then later doing human resources for them. The Chronicles remarks,
“It does not really matter what the reason was behind the personnel reshuffle:the fact that Rysgal established itself as an acknowledged print media outlet and started generating revenue which sparked the interest of some influential individuals or that the mass media should be controlled by trustworthy, as viewed by the authorities, individuals. The main conclusion is that under the present-day conditions the private newspaper failed to become independent and moreover, was prevented from doing so.”
Private ownership is absolutely crucial to good, healthy media. Again, Habermas (via the book reviewer quoted above):
“[Habermas'] book tells a sad story, however, because it also chronicles the loss of that utopian potential during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when publishing media became consolidated in the hands of a few. Less and less the voice of a democratic public (if it ever was one), press media became largely the instrument of industrial magnates and the ruling class. In the United States, individuals like Randolph Hearst bought up newspapers and controlled public opinion. Presently, when Tom Brokaw addresses the U.S. ‘public’ on the evening news, that news is filtered and arranged by the megacorporations that own the television stations that bang the drum for war on Iraq’s oil. For Habermas, the challenge of the twentieth century is to reclaim the promise of the public sphere for genuine democratic debate.”
It’s now the challenge of the twenty-first century, especially in my nation. Our situation is no different, actually worse. Private ownership of television channels is strictly forbidden by authorities — a clear reluctance of the government to provide its citizenswith truthful, unbiased news regarding the state of the nation. The government knows that a private channel would alert the public to the mistakes and corruptions of the authorities.
In the present situation, the government has absolutely no difficulty keeping the population ignorant with regards to its malpractice and corruption when it owns all of the nation’s media outlets. Moreover, the government criminalizes private media, so that anyone who attempts to spread legitimate information for the benefit of society, if caught, is severely penalized. All information that is allowed is “feel-good” news: of festivals, weddings, social and political improvements — basically, anything that will present the political situation in a favorable light, or at least distract from it. To paraphrase the old Roman expression, it’s nothing but çörek and festivals…