The State Directed Internet Blockade Continued in Turkmenistan in 2023

TurkmenNet remains slow, expensive and highly restricted with the majority of the world’s IP addresses remaining blocked. Internet blockade persisted throughout 2023. While the right to information is guaranteed through media and internet use laws and the country’s constitution, in reality these rights are denied by the Turkmen authorities. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Turkmen government refuses to admit that it is running aggressive Internet censorship causing substantial collateral damage.

The government purposefully restricts public’s access to information while the state media remains the sole source of information for the public. The Ministry for National Security (MNS) vets the content disseminated by domestic media and blocks citizens access to information from abroad. Such a restrictive environment makes it impossible for independent media outlets or independent online content creators to emerge.

In this report we provide an overview of developments and Internet shutdowns that took place in 2023 by using open sources. We provide the news stories that have been reported by the independent media. The government of Turkmenistan has not addressed publicly any of the allegations and/or situations, public’s complaints described in these news stories.

The National Digital Network turned one

In 2023 there was no publicly available information on the progress made toward building the National Digital Network not connected to the Internet, which was proposed by the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov in 2022. It seems, however, that the foreign governments and international organizations in Turkmenistan are supporting the idea of an independent Internet network. The government notes that UNDP is involved in the development of the national digital network. The use of “the national digital network” by the government in the context of cooperation with international organizations such as UNDP is troublesome and confusing.

Turkmenistan continues to perform poorly on various international indexes measuring Internet freedom and access to information. The Vibrant Information Barometer (VIBE), ranked Turkmenistan’s information ecosystem as ‘not vibrant’ scoring 1 out of 40, where the higher number indicates a highly vibrant information environment. Turkmenistan’s overall country score dropped two points, from 3 in 2022 to 1 in 2023. It also ranked the worst out of 18 countries. This means information in Turkmenistan is of poor quality, lacks editorial independence, not factual, and people lack access to a range of information, and choice on the types of information they engage with.

Source: Vibrant Information Barometer, IREX 2022, 2023.

Turkmenistan has the least developed telecommunications sector in Central Asia as the government controls telecommunication and prevents foreign investment. The International Telecommunication Union’s ICT Regulatory Tracker, which examines the evolution of ICT regulation, puts Turkmenistan as a ‘regulated public monopoly’ with a command-and-control approach to ICT. Turkmenistan scored 6.70 out of 100 in 2022, second worst only to Djibouti.

Altyn Asyr mobile operator has the monopoly over telecommunications. Lack of competition negatively impacts telecommunication services’ availability, affordability, and quality. The incident with MTS in 2019 discouraged foreign investment, inhibiting the country’s ability to build telecom infrastructure.

Corruption Perception Index (CPI) scores the perceived levels of public sector corruption in Turkmenistan as 18 out of 100 in 2023. Among 180 countries, Turkmenistan ranked 170th. From 2022 to 2023 the country’s score dropped by one point indicating the worsening of corruption under the presidency of Serdar Berdimuhammedov.

Internet was not affordable to Turkmens in 2023

The government deliberately keeps the Internet access and speed slow and unreliable compared to global and regional standards. Two different platforms measuring Internet speed rated Turkmenistan among the countries with the slowest Internet.

According to, which measures the worldwide broadband speed, Turkmenistan was among the top 20 countries with slow internet speed, ranking 206th out of 220 economies. The average download speed was 4.49 Mbps and it took over 2.5 hours to download a 5 GB movie.

In contrast, Uzbekistan has an average speed of 21.67 Mbps and it takes 31 minutes to download the same movie. According to the Speedtest Global Index the average Internet speed in Turkmenistan as of December 2023 was 6.10Mbps. The country was among the top-10 countries with the slowest Internet, ranking 172 out of 178 countries. Given that most modern websites are designed for a larger flow of information and contain heavy elements such as photos and videos, it is very difficult to load such websites with Turkmen Internet.

At the same time, the Internet remains expensive in Turkmenistan in relation to the income of the local population. Turkmenistan had the 7th most expensive mobile data in the world ($11.42) and the most expensive broadband Internet ($45.80) in the CIS region. In comparison, neighboring Kazakhstan has the second cheapest broadband connection.

On March 1, 2023 Turkmentelekom, the monopoly Internet provider in Turkmenistan, introduced new Internet tariffs at speeds of 4 and 6 Mbps. The prices for current tariffs are as follows:

  • 1 Mbps – 150 manat or $7.7 using the market exchange rate;
  • 2 Mbps – 180 manat or $9.2;
  • 4 Mbps – 230 manat or $11.8;
  • 6 Mbps – 280 manat or $14.4.

The minimum speed of its connections was increased from 256 kbps to 1 Mbps and the maximum speed from 2 to 6 Mbps. Nevertheless, the new maximum speed is still slow compared to the global average of 80 Mbps, which is country’s Internet 13 times slower than the world average. Meanwhile, the Internet users did not experience this increased speed. For example, 80 residents in Turkmenbashi city went to the local branch of Turkmentelecom on September 2 to express dissatisfaction with the low speed of the Internet and demanded a return to the previous rates. The company representative made concessions and agreed to reduce their tariffs from 280 to 180 manats.

In addition, the Internet is blocked and speed is artificially slowed down around specific dates and events. According to data from Cloudflare Radar, the internet traffic in Turkmenistan dropped to almost zero for several days in late June 2023. This was around the opening of Arkadag city. However, foreign guests attending the opening festivities were granted unrestricted internet access in their hotels.

They were able to access sites that are inaccessible to citizens of Turkmenistan without VPN. Similarly, in late October on the eve of the president’s visit Internet speed decreased in the Balkan province. According to AccessNow in 2023 there were 80 shutdowns in 21 countries including in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen government did, however, keep the Internet on during parliamentary elections on March 31, 2023.

Source: Cloudflare Radar

Only few Internet users in Turkmenistan

The government of Turkmenistan claims widespread access to the Internet. According to official statistics, there are 3,149,178 Internet users in Turkmenistan. Using official population statistics from 2022 (7,057,841 people) this accounts to roughly 44.6% of the total population. Similarly, the state media reports that after spending $273 million on projects to expand telecom operator networks Turkmenistan has achieved 100% coverage of populated areas with high-speed Internet.

Meanwhile, according to Dataportal at the start of 2023 internet penetration in Turkmenistan stood at 38.2% with 2.47 million internet users. This means that 4 million people or 61.8% of the population remained offline at the beginning of the year (population of 6.47 million).

As of January 2023, there were only 180.4 thousand social media users in Turkmenistan, equating to 2.8% of the population.

Blanket blocking of IP addresses

The government continued to block websites without a rationale for blocking them using carpet blocking where IP addresses are blocked by entire subnets. compiled a list of major hosting services, social networks, instant messengers, online games and others that are blocked in Turkmenistan. The list is far from exhaustive and blockages are permanent. Most of the restrictions are arbitrary, not subject to independent judicial review, and are imposed without warnings or explanations to site owners. The government does not make a list of banned websites public.

Turkmenistan controls the Internet using network filters based on the developments of the German company Rhode & Schwarz. The company’s solutions help track an object and collect information from correspondence, and create a behavioral portrait based on surveillance data. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan entrusted its cyber defense, designed to protect against online threats, to an unknown company from Singapore, Indigo Software.

A team of computer scientists conducted the first ever large-scale research on internet censorship in Turkmenistan between 2021 and 2022. They found that the Turkmen government uses sophisticated technology such as firewalls and interference techniques to block access to the Internet. They tested 15.5 million domains for censorship and found that over 122,000 domains are blocked. They also discovered 6,000 over-blocking instances that can affect 5.4 million domains unrelated to the domains that the government intended to block. Turkmen authorities block domains using ‘a rule based’ blocking system where, for example, every domain name containing the word “porn” is automatically blocked even if it is not a pornography website. This can cause a lot of collateral damage because there are many unrelated websites that are blocked. Among the blocked content was those related to LGBTQ+, gender identity education, domains of higher-educational institutions and websites that end with, which are WordPress websites commonly used by activists and bloggers.

Meanwhile, according to out of the 4 billion IP addresses in the world, more than 3 billion are blocked in Turkmenistan. In August 2023 published names of government officials involved in the blocking of the Internet in Turkmenistan. According to the article, blocking, and then “trading” free access to the Internet, is done by the Eighth Department at MNS and the Cyber Security Department. In addition to eliminating access to independent and critical information, blocking the Internet provides a lucrative business opportunity for the employees of the security services. Allegedly, for $1,500-$2,000 a month the IP address can be included in the “white list”.

While the blocking of the Internet brings hefty revenues to select individuals, it comes at a high cost to the Turkmen economy and human development. When the Internet is blocked the Turkmen economy experiences a negative impact of $348,000 per day, which equals to an economic loss of nearly $127 million over the course of a year. This also results in poor health and educational outcomes for citizens of Turkmenistan.

The use of censorship circumvention tools remains illegal

The lack of access to the open Internet has led to increased use of internet circumvention tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in Turkmenistan. There are special services available for Turkmen citizens to install VPNs on their mobile phones and laptops for a fee. However, in 2023 the blocking of VPN services increased significantly alongside the pressure on installers and users of VPNs.

Below are the stories that have been reported by the independent media. The government of Turkmenistan has not addressed any of the allegations and/or situations, public’s complaints described in the news stories.

In January 2023 the security officials in Balkan province raided the homes of VPN installers, detaining and fining 10 individuals. Later on October 3 a technical expert was detained in Ashgabat, arrested for 15 days and fined 15,000 manat (about US$4,285) for installing VPN services. While VPNs are not outlawed in Turkmenistan the use of “uncertified” encryption programs is a criminal offense with up to seven years imprisonment.

To maintain the demand for ‘white lists’ and continue making money the security officials maintain an artificial deficit of the free Internet and fight competitors such as installers and users of VPNs. According to the Cyber Security Service stopped unblocking VPN services whose owners paid a bribe to be removed from blocking.

Meanwhile, the harassment of VPN users continued. For example, in Mary province people using VPNs were fined 1,500 manats ($80 at the market exchange rate), which is about the average monthly salary. On the pretext of protecting national security, employees of the MNS and Cybersecurity Department have monopolized access to the internet and sell it to the people who can afford it. This further widens the digital divide between the rich urban population and the poor rural population.

At the same time, not many people in Turkmenistan can afford using VPNs due to high costs. For instance, installing VPN on a mobile phone will cost 500-600 manats per month. Given that many people already pay 180-200 manats monthly for home WiFi, using VPN can cost them 800 manats. For many, this is almost a month’s income.

Moreover, reported that TOR bridges, designed to bypass Internet blocking, have stopped working in Turkmenistan in July 2023. TOR was one of the safest ways to bypass blocks in Turkmenistan until approximately April 2023. It was also known to few people and was mainly used by IT professionals. However, the information was later shared with the broader public and local bridges were shared in telegram channels and in the Link messenger. As a result, the Cyber Security Service noticed the increased usage of the TOR bridges in July and it blocked all TOR traffic. As illustrated in the figure below, the TOR was inaccessible for 2 months from mid-July to late August, 2023.

Slow mobile Internet

Given the low proliferation of fixed-line broadband and wide access to mobile phones in Turkmenistan it is crucial to have quality mobile internet. In early 2023 there were 4.98 million cellular mobile connections active in Turkmenistan, which is 77% of the total population. 74% of the traffic was through mobile internet in the last 12 months.

According to the state media there are 421,609 are wired Internet users and 2,727,569 mobile Internet users. Hence, mobile Internet is how the majority of Internet users access the world wide web in Turkmenistan.

However, the speed of mobile internet in Turkmenistan is extremely slow. For example, in November 2023 residents of Mary province experienced decreasing quality of phone calls and Internet speed. The authorities block instant messenger apps once they become popular. For instance, in 2023 authorities blocked ICQ and partially blocked IMO.

In October 2023 Azatlyk reported about the shortage of SIM cards for mobile phones in Turkmenistan, mainly in Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi cities with waiting lists extending until March 2024. According to if the client has money, they can not only get a SIM card without any problems, but also choose a “beautiful” number for themselves for $2,000. To put things in perspective, the average salary in Turkmenistan is 2,000 manat or $105 based on market exchange rate.

A rosy picture of the TurkmenNet continues

The government presents an alternative reality by boasting about its achievements in technology and innovation. To illustrate, the country hosted an international conference on November 9-10 titled “Turkmentel-2023” – XVI International Exhibition and Scientific Conference. Over 200 representatives of 80 companies from 30 countries attended the event. Turkmenistan presented its capabilities in IT and modern communications. Topics discussed include the development of international cooperation in the areas of digital transformation, cybersecurity, the future of communications, satellite technologies, launch of 5G and the state digital development strategy. Also, the winners of the “Digital Solution – 2023” of the Turkmenaragatnashyk Agency were announced featuring the best young developers and their digital products. Moreover, mobile operators in Turkmenistan introduced virtual mobile numbers, which is a phone number that works over the Internet. However, to use the service, one needs a device with Internet access.

The government of Turkmenistan continues to remove negative information and criticism of the country and government policies on the Internet. In June popular bloggers were interrogated by the police and required to post only positive content about Turkmenistan, threatening them with possible prison punishment. On July 25, 2023 the employees of the MNS, the city hall and public organizations held a meeting with state employees in Turkmenbashi city. Meeting attendees were urged not to send information about socio-economic problems to Radio Azatlyk and not to read foreign media news online. The officials urged citizens to be patient and said the people themselves are to blame for the situation in the country. Everyone was also encouraged to keep an eye on their family members and colleagues to identify those who take photos and videos about the events taking place in Turkmenistan.

On December 27, 2023 two women were arrested, interrogated and their mobile phones were confiscated after they sent wedding photos to their relatives in the United States at an Internet cafe in Turkmenabat city. Internet cafes in Turkmenistan have CCTV cameras, and employees can monitor which sites customers visit and what they send. The ladies were released with a warning that they could face a criminal charge if they continued to communicate with their relatives or friends living abroad. Authorities said “any photo and video materials sent abroad can be used by foreign centers of ideological sabotage to destabilize the situation in our peaceful and calm country”.

Reactions from international organizations

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Turkmen government refuses to admit the aggressive Internet censorship. At the 137th session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva on March 1, 2023, Rovshen Annaberdyev, the head of the department of international organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan rejected accusations of blocking the Internet and obstructing the activities of independent media adding that the Internet is available to all citizens across the country.

During her visit to Turkmenistan in June 2023 OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro discussed numerous challenges to media freedom in the country including restrictions on the free flow or and limited access to information, both online and offline. She added that “in today’s interdependent world, freedom of the media is only achievable by ensuring equal access to the online information ecosystem” and that “full and unrestricted access to the internet forms a crucial part of media pluralism in the country”. She urged the Turkmen authorities to uphold the commitments of the OSCE regarding freedom of expression and media freedom. While this statement was made in June, there was no government reaction until Mr Vepa Hajiyev briefly addressed the topic later at UPR.

During its 4th cycle of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 6 November 2023 the Turkmen delegation claimed there were “no restrictions on the creation or use of websites in the country, except for those prohibited by law, particularly in relation to the promotion of terrorism and radicalism”. The government delegation shared that Internet users have increased by 38% and social media users by 74% compared to 2018. Nevertheless, the committee members recommended the Turkmen government to ‘fully implement the constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of opinion, thought and expression, including by ensuring unobstructed Internet access to news websites and social networks, and to guarantee free and uncensored access to the Internet’.

Furthermore, several concerns related to the state of the Internet in Turkmenistan were raised by various UN agencies during UPR. The United Nations country team shared that despite legal safeguards, the State controls all media while social media and many Internet websites remain blocked in Turkmenistan.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was concerned with the limited access to the Internet in the country, particularly in rural areas. Meanwhile, UNESCO recommended that Turkmenistan reviews the 2012 Law on Mass Media by establishing an independent regulatory agency and introducing a law on access to information in accordance with international standards.

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