Liberty: An Uncounted Fatality of COVID-19 in Central Asia

While failing to wear a mask in close quarters outdoors can result in arrest in many urban international centers across the world, donning a mask while waiting at a bus stop in Turkmenistan could result in jail time.

Among the last three nations to report no COVID-19 cases, the Turkmen government maintains the virus has no presence in the country. Ruled by dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow since 2007, the government has gone as far as removing mention of the virus from public health brochures and pamphlets distributed in hospitals and school–just saying the word ‘coronavirus’ in public can result in arrest by plain-clothes police.

As with the post on authoritarianism amid COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, this post makes use of the same five categories:

  • Press restriction
  • Dissident arrests
  • Surveillance trespasses
  • Freedom/availability of information
  • Speech restriction / ‘fake news’ restriction

Topping the map is Turkmenistan, falling under violations of all of the above. All five regimes have constituted violations of freedom/availability of information, whether it be in the form of covering up the inhumane conditions of quarantine wards in Uzbekistan or the Tajik government stating up until last month that there were no instances of COVID-19 in the country.

Inevitably, in nations with limited press freedom, the categories of dissident arrests and press restriction often unfortunately feature the same names. A journalist and blogger, Zaure Mirzakhodjayeva was detained and is currently under investigation for a Facebook post she posted last month deemed misinformative by the state. In Tajikistani press conferences, government officials simply refuse to answer questions posed by journalists.

As was the case in Southeast Asia with anti-fake news laws, the Uzbek government has turned to imposing onerous fines on the general public for spreading ‘misinformation.’ In line with this sort of speech hindrance are the heightened surveillance operations of the Kazakh government—urging intelligencia and the information ministry to “identify and punish” those spreading rumors and “provocative reports.”

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