(NPR) The Central Asian country of Turkmenistan claims it has no coronavirus cases. But if you happen to utter the word "coronavirus" while waiting, say, for the bus in the white-marbled capital Ashgabat, there's a good chance you'll be arrested.
That's because the Turkmen government, run since 2006 by the flamboyant dentist-rapper strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has reportedly banned the word, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). [...]
Turkmenistan is ranked last in RSF's World Press Freedom Index. It's a place where speaking out is punished and where the government frequently shuts down the country for no reason, says Alexander A. Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and an expert on Central Asian politics.
"Banning the term 'coronavirus' might seem to us obscene and extreme," Cooley says. "But in reality, when the state controls all of the media and all of the digital nodes coming in and out, it's not that outrageous. My sense is that they'll try and keep [the pandemic] under wraps as long as they can."
Cooley says the government likely anticipates a big post-pandemic economic collapse in a country highly reliant on the sale of natural gas to China.
"That probably spurred the government on to this new kind of more denialist type of posture," he says. [...]
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