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Turkmenistan: A Bay Area Visit 05/25/24

Four men and two women from Turkmenistan, five of them journalists, aged between twenty six and thirty six, have just spent a week as guests of the Rotary Club of Concord.  

The theme of their visit, was Independent Journalism and they were here to discover what our best practices are. Each of the delegates came from very different backgrounds. But they had one thing in common: they all worked for government agencies. For them, freedom of the press as we know it does not exist. Throughout the week and in almost every event, they were asked about it and they had difficulty responding.

The week began with a visit to Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco where the Editor in Chief, Monika Bauerlein, explained that the role of their magazine was not simply to provide serious investigative journalism but to be a watchdog on the government. This concept alone was totally foreign for the group and when Monika went even further explaining that its role was also to critique and question government policies and actions, it was a totally unfamiliar paradigm.

At San Francisco State University’s Journalism Department they witnessed free speech in action. The campus was abuzz with students demonstrating over Israel and the war in Gaza. On a giant split screen in their newsroom, the delegates saw video coming in live from the field and watched mesmerized as four student editors received real time journalist reports which they edited and updated on the screen every ten minutes.

At Diablo Valley College they spoke and interacted with student journalists as they prepared their weekly campus newspaper for publication. With a circulation of 15,000 and entirely produced by the students themselves, they were impressed. A special experience was in attending a class where they saw how the next generation of journalists is being educated.

The delegates also participated in a townhall type meeting with seven authors, a photo-journalist and the Diablo Gazette’s own David King. A similar meeting took place in the Benicia Library where several former editors of the San Francsico Chronicle, The Oakland Tribune and the Bay Area News agency, both fielded and asked questions. As the week progressed the delegates opened up and shared more freely. But what sometimes emerged was often unusual information. When asked about how they collected local news and especially about crime, they answered, ‘that there is nothing to report. There is no crime in Turkmenistan! If there is major incident of any kind, the appropriate agency deals with it and issues a report which is passed on to the news agencies which publish it.’ The team assured audiences that people had free and uninterrupted access to the internet and that there were no government controls. However, a Turkman lady in the audience who unfortunately did not remain for a rebuttal, challenged the group and contradicted all that they had said, backing her statements with alleged facts and figures.

That interaction prompted further discussion by the host Rotarians. As journalists they were asked how they reported on the status of women and the recent government regulations banning the use of cosmetics, false eye lashes, lip enhancement, tight fitting clothes and the wearing of jeans. They refused to discuss it, and when this was followed by “Did you inform your readers that more than a million Turkmen out of a population of seven million, left the country in 2023 seeking jobs mainly in Turkey?”, two of the team replied that they hadn’t come to the USA to discuss politics.

As their personalities emerged, we learned that all of them were married, had children, loved soccer and liked to ski. We laughed, we joked, we relaxed and talked about family. It was clear these were people just trying to earn a living in a country that had not yet fully opened itself up to the modern world. There was a veneer of professionalism and adaptation, but it appeared to be only skin deep. The fact that I had the team leader sit with me each day in the front of the car with the men behind, drew comments. That is prohibited in their country. Neither of the two lady delegates has a driver’s license. There is no law forbidding it, it is simply frowned upon, and the test made so difficult women rarely pass it.

But what will the delegates take home? Loaded with information, they learned that US news is a commodity and can generate revenue. They were fascinated by Newspaper advertising. The highlight of the week was the meeting and tour of Channel 7 newsroom with Dan Ashley, then watching him broadcast. But they also talked about the freedom we have to discuss, criticize and complain about our government, our society, and our lives without fear of any reprisal. They talked about how in their society, there no need to lock their cars or their homes. They commented on the panhandlers in our towns and graffiti, none of which exist in Turkmenistan. But hopefully they witnessed that a civilized and free democratic society has its own riches but also its drawbacks. Its simply a question of which promotes human development better: democracy or autocracy? 






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