KEY POINTS

  • Turkmenistan bragged about zero positive cases in the country as of Tuesday
  • The country shares more than half of its natural gas to China through the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline
  • Its authoritarian government is known to choke freedom of speech and shut down the country abruptly citing no reason

Turkmenistan, the Central Asian nation that shares its borders with Iran — one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, has forbidden its residents to use the word “coronavirus,” with rights groups accusing the government of trying to suppress information and thereby putting the health of the citizens at greater risk.

The country ordered all the secondary schools closed until April 6 and temporarily suspended all international flights to stem the spread of COVID-19. It claimed there have been no coronavirus cases in the country as of Tuesday.

Any person who violates the rules is likely to be arrested by plainclothes police as part of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s directive. The government even restricted the state-controlled media to use the word and removed it from health information brochures in an apparent bid to suppress information about the viral pandemic, according to the non-profit Reporters Without Borders.

"This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk, but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov," Jeanne Cavelier, the head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement. "We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations."

Alexander A. Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and an expert on Central Asian politics said Turkmenistan is known to choke freedom of speech of its nationals and that the government shuts down the country frequently citing no reason.

Cooley said the government’s visibly desperate attempts at suppressing information reflect its fear of a possible economic collapse after the pandemic subsides as it is highly reliant on China in terms of the sale of natural gas. The country delivers more than half of its natural gas to China through the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, also known as the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline.

Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime -- led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- has been accused by international rights groups of diverting energy revenues towards vanity projects Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime -- led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- has been accused by international rights groups of diverting energy revenues towards vanity projects Photo: AFP / Igor SASIN

"That probably spurred the government on to this new kind of more denialist type of posture," Cooley said.