On February 12, Turkmenistan elects a new president - and it's almost certain that the old one will win. Division head Mathis Winkler explains why DW Akademie held an election reporting workshop there.
Most Turkmen get their information from foreign broadcasters, accounting for the large number of satellite dishes.
What motivated you to organize a workshop on election reporting in a country under authoritarian rule?
I admit, it initially sounds quite absurd. Hardly any country has fewer press freedoms than Turkmenistan. Reporters Without Borders ranks it as the third lowest on the index, just above North Korea and Eritrea. Private media - except for a mock business magazine - do not exist. You can't find a newspaper in the capital, Ashgabat, because they're not sold publicly. And on television, there's little to watch besides grazing sheep, horses, and of course, footage of the president in his various functions: giving orders to his cabinet, inspecting imposing buildings, and appearing before waving crowds.
Given the upcoming elections, we asked participants to produce - with trainer support - portraits of the candidates,. The president "generously " declined to be portrayed himself but in all reports on his alleged rivals there were large-screen images of him in the background. Restrictions applied to the filming, but by the end, our trainers had made a few modest changes. They were able to convince the Turkmen film crew – who otherwise only film the president - not to erase the entire original audio track and replace it with a voice-over.
That does sound quite modest. Does it make any sense to work in a country under these conditions?
Rush hour in Ashgabat. The only traffic jams in this ghost town-like capital are when the president is on the road.
That's a question we often ask ourselves. It's definitely a balancing act. Does an authoritarian regime approve a workshop like this in order to appear as if it's opening up a little? Or can we, despite the restrictions, actually achieve something? Personally, I believe that this is about building and maintaining a dialogue with the people there so that they can get a sense of different models of society. Other German representatives in Turkmenistan have the same approach. Still, it's not easy. In my experience, everyone in the country is afraid of making a false move for which they might be punished.
In what sense?
Let's take another project as an example. For almost a year now we've been working in regular intervals with Turkmen journalists on a documentary film called "A Wedding in Turkmenistan". That doesn't sound very controversial, but we quickly learned that even small things can become problematic. Comments like, "The bride's father is wearing a dirty shirt so we can't show that," or "We can't show the women washing the dishes" obviously contradict our notion of a documentary film. You need to be extremely sensitive to issues like these. And although the project was officially authorized by the ministry responsible, every time we were there, we had to convince our Turkmen colleagues that it was alright to be part of the project. Self-censorship there is huge.
Will the documentary be shown in Turkmenistan once it's completed?
We very much hope so. The participants and trainers recently finished the rough cut. Our Turkmen colleagues - who are incidentally very well-trained technically - will give it the finishing touches. Even if you can't compare the final product to a German television documentary, it'll be a small revolution to see an authentic Turkmen bride speaking on a screen that is otherwise virtually devoid of people.
Ellen Schuster spoke with Mathis Winkler.
About the project
DW Akademie has been cooperating with the BBC World Service Trust since 2010 on an EU-sponsored project supported by additional projects funded by the German Foreign Ministry and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. DW Akademie experts are also providing consulting to Turkmen journalists in developing a new TV health magazine and other TV feature formats. A DW Akademie initiative invited Turkmen media representatives to Germany to learn about media structures here, and sent a media law expert to Ashgabat to take part in discussions on reforming the existing media law established during the Soviet era. The project itself ends in June 2012.