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What Turkmenistan internet shutdowns tell us about digital repression in Central Asia

Turkmenistan internet shutdowns are extreme. Today, any social media platform, foreign media outlet, or website that provides information criticizing the current regime is shut down. Not only are sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia banned, the government also blocks sites that offer circumvention tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). What’s more, Turkmenistan residents are asked to swear on the Quran not to use the circumvention tools while signing up for a home internet connection, while students are asked to make declarations pledging to use the internet only for “educational purposes.”

Unfortunately, we are seeing a similar pattern of disproportionate online censorship in Tajikistan. In response to protests, authorities have cut internet access for 13 days in the Tajik town of Khorog, forcing locals to travel hundreds of kilometers to neighboring cities to get connected. Deprived of their ability to continue their studies online, do business, or communicate with loved ones, people are experiencing stress and frustration while getting no answers from local telecommunication companies about when the situation will improve.      

In extremely restrictive environments like these, ordinary citizens, activists, and journalists are sharply limited in their possibilities to speak freely. The Turkmenistan and Tajikistan internet shutdowns are a sign of growing digital repression in Central Asia. The international community must speak out for those denied internet access, free use of VPNs to seek information, and the ability to share critical thoughts online. 

Turkmenistan vs. the internet

The Turkmenistan internet shutdowns have resulted in unprecedented online censorship in the country. Any platform or website that publishes critical views on government policies or officials faces an immediate ban. Even the Russian president’s official website, Kremlin.ru, which allows individuals to submit complaints to the Russian government, was blocked in Turkmenistan in 2013. The government also shut down Wikipedia in 2019 because of an article that contained unflattering remarks about President Berdymukhamedov.

It’s hard to figure out what has been censored. There is no open register of websites that have been blocked. Most of the restrictions are arbitrary, not subject to independent judicial review, and are imposed without warnings and explanations to site owners. And it appears many sites that don’t have obviously “dangerous” or dissenting content have become collateral damage. For instance, Turkmen IT specialists can’t reach the development platform GitHub, even in the absence of any political rationale for blocking it. In March 2021, authorities blocked Zoom video conferencing service and PayPal payment system.

Perhaps most disturbing is the government’s aggressive blocking of circumvention tools. As soon as people in Turkmenistan who are struggling to connect turn from major, blocked VPNs to smaller ones, the government quickly blocks these services, too, often within 24 hours. Authorities then persecute known VPN customers. They arrest not only those who help people download VPN apps on their phones, but also bring charges against teachers who have not prevented students from using them. 

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan follow suit

Sadly, Uzbek and Tajik authorities appear to be headed in the same direction, imposing internet shutdowns and blocking popular communications platforms in an arbitrary manner that does not safeguard free expression. 

On November 3, 2021, Uzkomnazorat, the national communication regulator in Uzbekistan, restricted access to most social media sites. The regulator had already blocked Twitter, TikTok, VKontakte, Skype, and WeChat, on the grounds of non-compliance with data protection laws. Then it added Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Telegram, and YouTube to the list. In addition, our partners at the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) report that people in Uzbekistan have not been able to reach the Signal app since April 2021.

Uzbekistan’s censorship policy has not been consistent. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev lifted the November blockings, calling Uzkomnazorat’s actions “unilateral and not fully thought out.” But the earlier bans are still in place, showing that the government’s approach is non-transparent and haphazard. It’s clear that to protect people’s right to free expression, the government must establish safeguards against restrictions on the freedom of expression in the context of the flawed data protection framework.

Arbitrary internet restrictions are common in Tajikistan too. It’s not limited to the current shutdown. Earlier this year, authorities blocked Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom. These restrictions are especially damaging and dangerous during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when the capacity to get access to information can impact health and public safety.

What the international community can do

It is imperative that those with the freedom to speak out demonstrate solidarity with human rights advocates in Central Asia and apply maximum pressure on governments to protect free expression online. 

During the 39th U.N. Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session, Access Now and Small Media (UPRoar) filed a joint submission on Tajikistan calling  out the fact that internet shutdowns are incompatible with international human rights law. We also urged government authorities to repeal regulations, including Presidential Decree 765, that enable the government to block services without any legal safeguards for the people of Tajikistan.

We were pleased to see the outcome of the UPR review result in several important recommendations for Tajikistan, including our recommendation to refrain from blocking access to websites and social networks. However, as we note above, authorities have once again cut internet access, showing they have not turned away from this pernicious practice.

Why is Khorog in the dark? After a young man was shot dead by police officers, people gathered to protest and demand an investigation. That’s when local Tajikistan authorities responded with an internet shutdown.  Now, the protesters are demanding authorities restore internet access. We strongly support this demand, and we urge you to join us in calling on the government to #KeepItOn. In situations of political or social instability, access to information can prevent further escalations. The right to free assembly and association is guaranteed to everyone, and we must work together to ensure this right is not undermined in the digital era.

As part of our work fighting to end internet shutdowns around the world, Access Now documents the impact of these disruptions on people’s lives and livelihoods. If you have been impacted by the Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan internet shutdowns,  or other blockings and censorship in Central Asia, we encourage you to share your internet shutdown experiences and story with us (the form is also available in Russian).

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