First battle in “Information 2.0” war
Turkmenistan is renowned as one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries but, in the summer of 2011, ordinary citizens risked imprisonment to inform the world about a deadly explosion at an arms depot near the capital, delivering the country’s first battle in the “Information 2.0” war.
In the late afternoon of 7 July 2011, a huge explosion shook a military depot in Abadan, a town 20 km outside Ashgabat, starting a fire that triggered even more violent explosions in the hours that followed.
The media, which are tightly controlled by the authorities, said nothing until the foreign ministry issued a terse communiqué the next day claiming that hot weather had caused “pyrotechnic material … intended for fireworks” to catch fire. There were “no victims or major destruction” and the population was receiving all the necessary medical and social assistance, the reassuring communiqué added.
Nonetheless, the town was surrounded, no one was allowed in, and the Internet was disconnected throughout the country. Alarming reports had already begun to circulate on independent news websites based abroad (such as Radio Azatlyk, Khroniki Turkmenistana and Fergananews) and in the Russian media.
Eye-witness accounts described scenes of chaos and panic, homes flattened and dozens or even hundreds of dead and wounded. Amateur videos quickly confirmed the scale of the disaster and extent of the damage. They showed massive explosions, buildings destroyed and military projectiles raining down on areas kilometres away.
While accusing the Russian media of “disinformation” and “provocation,” the authorities finally said that “the pyrotechnic material fire extended to military depots” and that “15 people died in the accident – 16 soldiers and two civilians.”
At the same time, a crackdown was launched on bloggers, journalists and netizens. Some were arrested. Others were interrogated by the security services. The mobiles phones of residents in surrounding areas were examined. And there were cyber-attacks on independent news websites, access to which was already blocked in Turkmenistan.
One of the first journalists to cover the disaster, Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev, a reporter for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service, was sentenced to five years in prison on a trumped-up charge at the end of a sham trial but was released a few weeks later thanks to international pressure.
Under a 2012 presidential decree, Abadan is to be moved and entirely rebuilt nearer to the capital in Rukhabat (in Akhal province).
Here are some of the videos that ordinary citizens circulated in the days following the explosion, forcing the Turkmen authorities to recognize at least part of the reality of what had happened.