Ruslan Myatiev founded (originally Alternative Turkmenistan News) in 2010 when living in Kyrgyzstan. The project initially concentrated on compiling independent news, which people inside Turkmenistan could not access due to the censorship of the internet, and sending them out to Turkmen email addresses. However, the Turkmen regime — notorious for spying on its citizens living abroad — soon managed to track his identity. Ruslan started to receive threatening emails and calls – “Kyrgyzstan,” he reflects, “did not feel safe for me anymore.” Eventually deciding to leave Kyrgyzstan for good, Ruslan gained asylum in the Netherlands, continuing his activities from there.

The project kept expanding: “The work gained me trust. People started to share their information, videos and photographs with me until I reached the point of being able to produce original content – in 2014, I launched my own website.” has grown into a major provider of information about what is happening inside Turkmenistan. Nowadays, Ruslan manages a network of around five dedicated reporters and 20 information sources, including people in the military and government officials.

“They are saying that it’s not the virus but dust from the Aral Sea which is spreading around and killing people.”

Despite being run by one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, Turkmenistan rarely catches international attention. It feels almost as if its kleptocratic elites — headed by the absurdly glorified and eccentric president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow — were purposely trying to be inconspicuous to prevent international criticism of their rule. Kept in power by the brutal repression of any potential opposition, they extract most of the nation’s wealth, leaving the rest of the population in misery.

“They control everything, be it the country’s vast oil and gas reserves, cotton sales, or foreign trade – all the foreign goods are imported by them. If you start a prosperous business, sooner or later someone knocks on your door and tells you that it’s not yours anymore.”

This extractive apparatus is underpinned by a complete subjugation of the information sphere. “All newspapers, TV channels and radio stations are controlled by the government. The president personally appoints chief editors and their deputies.”

The internet coverage is very limited, reaching less than 20% of the population. Moreover, as Ruslan points out, even this margin has problems accessing independent news: “The internet is very expensive and filtered. The authorities are also very skilled in blocking VPNs and proxy servers. We have recently worked with a number of VPN providers, such as Nord VPN or Tunnelbear, but everyone failed in resolving the issue – it seems that Turkmens are using the state of the art in surveillance and blocking technology.”

How did they acquire it? “They buy it from abroad. It was a big story a few years ago: one of the Italian providers supplied the equipment to Turkmens. There were also Israelis, Germans (Siemens) and Chinese (Huawei).”

Ruslan describes state reporting as “pure propaganda”. His team monitors the Turkmen media on a daily basis. “Everything is presented as perfect. All the production goals are met. The aviation sector is booming, despite the Covid pandemic. There is an overproduction of wheat, but in reality, people have to queue from 3 am, four hours before the grocery shop opens, to buy flour imported from Russia and Kazakhstan.”

No critical reporting is allowed: “State journalists cannot even report about the bad state of the roads.” Why is this the case? “Because it could make people think the president is responsible. In the end, he is the one who appoints local governors, the head of Turkmen Roads Association which oversees the quality of the roads...”

Moreover, the government blatantly ignores the problems the country is facing. “They sweep everything under the carpet. If you don’t acknowledge a problem, you don’t have to deal with it. They don’t care about their own people.”

A vivid example is the government’s approach to the pandemic. It is still adamant that the country has not had any cases of the virus. In June and July, when the situation was getting out of control, the authorities were still fining people for wearing masks in the streets, accusing them of spreading panic.

“They are acting like children. It reminds me of my son when he broke a plate and I caught him red-handed: ‘It wasn’t me, it was the cat.’ Similarly, they are saying that it’s not the virus but dust from the Aral Sea which is spreading around and killing people – absolute nonsense.”

“The whole country is monitored by surveillance cameras.” is trying to provide an alternative to the state propaganda and shed a critical light on events in the country. Over the past years, Ruslan and his colleagues have uncovered numerous cases of human rights violations, corruption, abuse of power and mismanagement.

Among many other things, the portal reports on the use of forced and child labour in cotton harvesting, which, despite international criticism, still happens on a large scale. Recent investigations include a revelation of a $2.3 billion highway construction contract awarded to a company co-owned by the president’s brother-in-law, and reports on the damage inflicted by a disastrous hurricane which tore through eastern Turkmenistan in May last year, being completely ignored by the government.

“We want to change things – see a different, prosperous country, fix the existing problems, and bring them to the attention of the international community.”

However, the regime seems to be doing all it can to suppress independent reporting. According to Ruslan, the whole country, and especially the capital Ashgabat, is monitored by surveillance cameras. Security forces have their informers everywhere.

How do you operate under these conditions? “We always find some way around. Getting information from Turkmenistan is difficult. People send us their material through secure channels such as Signal. When the information is too sensitive, they occasionally even travel to Uzbekistan or Iran and send it from there.”

The stakes are high and detention by the authorities usually does not end well. “In very lucky cases, when I find out early enough and make a lot of noise around it, they might get away with a 15-day arrest. If I miss the crucial moment, they are gone for many years.”

So far, three reporters for have been imprisoned. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was sentenced to three years on charges of drug possession, after a medical drug tramadol was planted in his hotel room.

Gaspar Matalaev was detained in 2016, a few days after the publication of his photo report on forced labour in the cotton harvest in western Turkmenistan. How was he revealed? “My guess is that he was under suspicion of working for me and when he did the harvest monitoring, the secret service sent some stool pigeons [spies] there.”

When under arrest, Matalaev was tortured with electric shocks and forced to admit to a false confession of fraud. He was subsequently sentenced to three years and sent to a labour camp.

Nurgeldi Halykov received a four-year term in September last year as a consequence of providing a picture of a visiting WHO delegation. The case is a good illustration of the rigour with which the secret service cracks down on independent reporting. Halykov reposted the picture from his acquaintance’s Instagram. The police watched the CCTV footage, summoned the acquaintance to the station and, after studying her followers, identified Halykov as the culprit. “He was my most valuable correspondent. Such a stupid mistake that he sent that photo and I published it.”

Despite all these difficulties, Ruslan keeps moving the project forward. “We are working on several investigations which, if we manage to finish them, will be our biggest achievements so far.”

He remains very realistic about the potential for regime change in Turkmenistan. “There won’t be a popular uprising because people aren’t prepared for it and there are no means for them to communicate. There is no reliable leader who can lead this movement and reach the presidential palace. It can only be a palace coup or the death of the president.”

But this does not discourage him from his work. “There are some intelligent people in power in Turkmenistan – some of them are my sources. They also want to see changes and if the regime change happens, the expertise I’ve accumulated will come in handy.”