“Contributor Insights into Turkmenistan” is the first of a series of Localization Lab user profiles and interviews leveraging the experience of Localization Lab contributors in order to provide more insight into the needs and threats of minority language users and users living and working in closed societies.
According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is "among the world’s most repressive and closed countries" where President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has held power since 2006 when Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's previous president, died. Since Berdymukhamedov's rise to the presidency in 2006, Turkmenistan has maintained one of the worst "Democracy Scores" according to Freedom House's 2017 Nations in Transit Report and has been labeled "Not Free" over more than 10 consecutive years in Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press report, which scores the legal, political and economic environments supporting a free press and freedom of expression.
Getting information about users of circumvention and digital security tools in Turkmenistan has been notoriously difficult which is why we recently chatted with Localization Lab contributors from Turkmenistan in order to better understand what current limitations on Internet freedom and freedom of expression mean for Turkmens, how they perceive censorship and surveillance and how they access information.
What are the primary languages used in Turkmenistan and what is the literacy rate?
The official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen and that is the primary language used in primary and higher education. Since 1991, Turkmen officially moved from being written in Cyrillic Script to Latin Script. While English has recently been pushed to replace Russian as a new "language of inter-ethnic communication," there were an estimated 900,000 Russian speakers in Turkmenistan as of 2012, most in urban areas. English is not widely spoken.
Literacy rates are high in Turkmenistan are very high, estimated at around 99.6% among Turkmens over age 15 by UNICEF in 2013.
Do Turkmens generally have a strong technical background?
The majority of Turkmens do not have significant technical knowledge. Individuals use smart phones primarily to access social media and messaging.
What is the state of Internet infrastructure in Turkmenistan?
Turkmenistan has some of the slowest and most expensive Internet access in the world and is managed by TurkmenTelekom who has a full monopoly over Internet access in the country. Unlimited Internet plans in Turkmenistan currently range from $38.50 to $71 per month with speeds between 250 kbps to 2 mbps dependent on plan, however TurkmenTelekom advertises these plans as only available through December 31, 2017. Outside of the temporary discount, unlimited plans offering speeds of 128 kbps up to 1 mbps range from $28 to $85 per month. To put this cost to the individual in context, according to the CIA Factbook, the average monthly salary for a Turkmen was $616 in 2010.
For more information:
Turkmenistan - Information and Communication Technology
Turkmenistan recognized as the country with the most expensive Internet rates
Turkmenistan: Nations in Transit 2016
Turkmenistan: Want Internet Speed? Yours for Just $7K
What are the popular social media and messaging services in Turkmenistan?
- VK (also known as Vkontakte)
VK has about 90% penetration in Turkmenistan.
Two popular pages in this platform are: Turkmenistan Limited and Turkmenistan Limited #1
- OK (also known as Ondoklassniki)
How are individuals affected by censorship and surveillance in Turkmenistan?
Turkmens have a general understanding that everything is being monitored in the digital sphere.
Criticism of the government is heavily punished creating fear and self-censorship. Even Turkmens living and studying outside the country fear "family punishment," or that their online behaviors from outside the country will result in consequences for their relatives still living in Turkmenistan.
What are some of the sites and services that are blocked in Turkmenistan?
Sites that are blocked change regularly and individuals will switch tools or use circumvention methods based on what is available.
Social Media and Messaging:
VK (Blocked on occasion for unknown reasons)
LINE (Sending images over LINE was recently blocked which may be a reason for the recent popularity of imo as an alternative)
Do people use circumvention methods?
Yes, due to the extensive reach of state censorship, use of circumvention tools is popular across Turkmenistan regardless of your political, educational or technical background.
What are some of the methods individuals use to access blocked content?
People generally prefer to use VPNs and proxy applications in order to access blocked content as opposed to using browsers like Tor Browser.
As VPNs and proxy tools gain popularity, they are blocked by the government, resulting in a cat and mouse game. There is a constant scramble to find new VPN options and many are marketed on social media sites like VK. Who is behind this regular influx of circumvention tools is uncertain. A related question is who is behind open advertising of certain of these circumvention tools on social media sites like VK considering that promoting digital security and circumvention tools can result in consequences from the state.
A couple of censored news sites will post content on Facebook, including Альтернативные Новости Туркменистана and Chronicles of Turkmenistan. Individuals may fear that accessing certain censored sites is risky, even while using a VPN, however accessing Facebook via circumvention tools is very common and individuals will even like the Facebook pages of censored sites.
What kinds of content are people accessing through circumvention tools?
Youth (under 30 years) are the largest consumers of online services and make up about 60% of Turkmenistan's population. Their online priorities are primarily networking and social media, chatting, and accessing information about education and migration abroad.
Accessing blocked media and blocked civil society or human rights content is not a high priority.
*According to Psiphon, there are about 70,000 users of Psiphon in Turkmenistan. The most visited sites by those users are YouTube, Google and VK (Russian social media network).
Are there consequences for using circumvention tools?
People fear using a circumvention tool can be incriminating and that using one on e regular basis could result in government retribution. For this reason, individuals will often use a proxy tool or VPN only to access blocked content and then turn it off for all other uncensored activities.
Individuals who advertise and share information about circumvention and security tools run the risk of facing consequences from the government.
What is the importance of Open Source and Free Software in Turkmenistan?
There is not a broad understanding of what Open Source technology is or what its benefits are. Along those same lines, there is no understanding of the potential threat of using proprietary tools.
Software that is free of charge is incredibly important in Turkmenistan however. As a closed country, international payment systems do not work in Turkmenistan and Turkmen bank cards do not work in the Google Play Store and Apple AppStore. If applications are not free for download, they are only accessible to the minority who have access to a foreign debit credit card.
Are there local human rights and civil society groups in Turkmenistan?
While there is an activist and NGO community in Turkmenistan, it is a very small, trust-based network. The size and scope of local organizations is inhibited by government restrictions on accessing foreign funding.
There are several international and regionally focussed organizations that work within Turkmenistan however, including: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Arzuw Foundation, Crude Accountability and Eurasia Foundation.
How could digital security and circumvention tools potentially be shared with the public in Turkmen?
There are several international NGOs (listed above) that work in Turkmenistan that might be able to assist with outreach and networking locally in Turkmenistan, including connecting with the small community of local organizations. It is also possible to utilize popular social media and messaging tools to do outreach.
LINE and imo: Market through popular LINE and imo channels
Facebook and VK: Advertize and do outreach through media sites that have been censored but have a Facebook or VK presence.