Soltan Achilova, Turkmen journalist in “the information black hole”

At 71, Soltan Achilova is one of the very few Turkmen photojournalists and reporters to work openly with independent, foreign-based media. For more than ten years, she has been reporting systematic human rights abuses committed in her country, where there is no freedom – of the press, of expression, of assembly, of religion or of movement.

In February 2021, she was nominated for the Martin Ennals Award for the defense of human rights, with whom the FIFDH worked closely, of which she was a finalist, alongside the Emirati feminist activist Loujain Al Hathloul.

She confided then, aware of the risks of her job: “I wouldn’t tell you how I broadcast my stories because you couldn’t see them anymore. But someone has to tell the whole world what is really going on in this isolated country. “

Just before North Korea

Turkmenistan is indeed one of the most severe authoritarian regimes on the planet. Surrounded by four countries of Central Asia, this country of the former USSR with an area equivalent to that of Spain and with 6 million inhabitants appears in the penultimate place of the world press freedom ranking. Just before North Korea. Imprisonments, acts of torture, assaults: the situation described by the Reporters Without Borders association (RSF) in a country that it describes as “ information black hole ‘, is alarming.

The journalists expose themselves to the very severe repression of the government, which does not tolerate any dissenting voice. On September 15, 2020, 26-year-old journalist Nourgeldy Halykov was sentenced to four years in prison for providing an independent news site with a photo of a World Health Organization delegation in the country. . Turkmenistan is the only country in the world with North Korea not yet reporting any coronavirus cases. Its president Gourbangouly Berdymoukhammedov, in power for 14 years, advises to fight my virus with liquorice roots.

Soltan Achilova, mother of five children, despite her age and the sympathy she inspires, has also been the victim of multiple assaults and harassment. ” She’s a photojournalist extremely courageous ”, described without hesitation Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia office of RSF. “She runs very big risks, for herself but also for her family”.

Thirst for information

Farruh Yusupov, director of the Turkmenistan service of the independent media Radio Free Europe (RFE), works from the Netherlands with a network of twelve correspondents on the spot, all anonymous, and to which are added many citizen journalists. It is one of the only independent media in the Turkmen language, which aims to provide independent, reliable and locally sourced information to Turkmens.

He collaborated for a long time with Soltan Achilova, whom he describes as “One of the bravest journalists in Turkmenistan”, especially because she practices her profession with her face uncovered. In an ultra-locked country, the media responds to “The immense thirst for information”, a population that consults its content not without risk, using secure connection tools to bypass Internet censorship, to which access is very restricted.

Soltan Achilova does not have an Internet connection at her home in Ashgabat, the country’s capital, and her telephone line is tapped. Armed with a simple digital camera and unwavering determination, she “Dream that Turkmenistan becomes an open and democratic state”.

Licorice Roots

For Isabelle Gattiker, president of FIFDH, putting Soltan Achilova in the spotlight of the festival was obvious: “He is a personality who has really touched us and who exercises a profession in a world context of profound upheaval in which the media are weakened. ” A highlight, which, she hopes, will give her “The visibility necessary for its protection, so that it can continue its work”.

Soltan Achilova, who has been banned from leaving the country for two years, will not attend the festival. But maybe follow him online from Ashgabat.

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