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 Uzbekistan and 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 Tajikistan and Turkmenistan 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.

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