Turkmenistan‘s authoritarian government has banned all uses of the word “coronavirus” from public discourse in a bizarre attempt to control any mention of the COVID-19 disease.

State-controlled media have been ordered not to use the word and police are arresting citizens who say “coronavirus” or wear face masks in public, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international NGO dedicated to promoting free speech.

RSF cites the Turkmenistan Chronicle, one of the country’s “few sources of independent news,” in its reporting. The Chronicle published a story earlier this month showing that “coronavirus” has been removed from all state Ministry of Health pamphlets.

“The Turkmen authorities have lived up to their reputation by adopting this extreme method for eradicating all information about the coronavirus,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, in a statement.

“This denial of information not only endangers the Turkmen citizens most at risk but also reinforces the authoritarianism imposed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. We urge the international community to react and to take him to task for his systematic human rights violations.”

Turkmenistan is a closed-off nation of about 5.8 million people bordering on Iran.

Its leader, President Berdymukhamedov, is a strongman in the same vein as ally Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former dentist loves riding horses, writing books about tea, and driving fast cars.

He also presides over a “black hole” of public information, according to RSF.

In this April 23, 2011 file photo, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiles as he rides a horse with a dove on his shoulder at a ceremony in the capital Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
 In this April 23, 2011 file photo, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov smiles as he rides a horse with a dove on his shoulder at a ceremony in the capital Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin

The RSF says Turkmenistan is the worst country in the world for press freedom, behind even North Korea. Berdymukhamedov also has a “dire human rights record” for brutally punishing “all unauthorized forms of religious and political expression,” according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published earlier this month.

“There is a total absence of media freedom in Turkmenistan,” the HRW report says.

In the absence of science or certain words, Turkmenistan’s government has been promoting President Berdymukhamedov’s books about the medicinal powers of tea and incense.

On March 13, for example, the government told people to use smoke from burning herbs to “prevent various infectious diseases,” citing the president’s books.

“The multi-volume work of the President of Turkmenistan also provides information on the benefits of red pepper, which has long been used in our country for medicinal purposes,” a portion of the government’s translated message says.

The country has shuttered many stores, cancelled classes and closed borders in order to stop the virus, according to Radio Azatlyk, another independent outlet affiliated with Radio Free Europe.

“At the same time, the country’s authorities do not inform citizens about the coronavirus, but take measures to suppress panic among the population,” the outlet reports.

Radio Azatlyk has also reported on crackdowns against people who use the word “coronavirus.”

“They take away people for any talk about the coronavirus,” a correspondent in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, told the outlet. “Special people listen to the conversations in lines, at bus stops, on buses.”

Turkmenistan has not reported any cases of the novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization, according to WHO data from March 30.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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