Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most isolated dictatorships, is planning to launch its own messaging app and email.

A state-owned communications company Turkmentelekom has developed software for national e-mail, according to a November 12 report by the government’s news agency TDH. The report added that President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov was informed during a cabinet meeting that the email service was being tested ahead of its rollout. 

At the same time, the majority state-owned Altyn Asyr, Turkmenistan’s sole mobile telecoms provider, has created a mobile app for a national messenger service.

“With the help of the Internet, this mobile software allows you to instantly exchange text messages, participate in group conversations, talk using video calls, and send and receive various types of electronic files,” the state news agency wrote. 

Why it matters:

The launch of a state-backed email and messaging app could tighten the government’s authoritarian hold over its six million citizens. Turkmentelekom and Altyn Asyr are the only telecoms providers in the country and all communications are closely surveilled by the government, according to civil and human rights organizations. Turkmenistan scored 2 out of 100 in a 2020 report by Freedom House, an organization that ranks political freedoms around the world.

“If the government suspects someone is working for independent press or human rights organization, they can not only wiretap their phone calls or text messages, they can also control all of their online activities,” Ruslan Myatiev, a director at Turkmen.News one of the very few opposition media operating from abroad, told me over a phone call.

The government’s surveillance and control of the internet also includes blocking popular social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Telegram are all banned and websites like YouTube are inaccessible. The only messenger currently available in Turkmenistan without a virtual private network is IMO.

The government’s control is such that an engineering and technology university had to use a VPN to hold an international scientific conference online in April. 

Myatiev says the authorities have a maximalist approach to policing digital spaces. “They block everything, it’s a continuous process. If tomorrow a new popular messenger comes out, Turkmen people start using it and if the government is not able to control that communication, they will block it,” Myatiev said. 

The bigger picture:

While the internet is expensive and very slow in Turkmenistan — often forcing neighbors to split costs and share wireless networks — Berdymukhamedov, according to state agency reports, is always pushing for the digitization of systems and services. This modernizing agenda rarely corresponds with daily realities in a country where plane or train tickets must be bought in person because online purchases are practically impossible.

The government has yet to announce a launch date for the messenger and email service.
Authorities have squeezed the flow of information during the pandemic. The government still denies the existence of Covid-19 in the country, despite multiple reports that large numbers of people have been infected.