It is no secret that the majority of Americans cannot find Turkmenistan on a map. But after the media blew up the story that Jennifer Lopez put on a birthday concert for Turkmenistan’s president this week, people finally took some notice.
Fortunately, it seems most people talking about the pop star’s show for President Berdimuhamedow are indignant because she was paid to sing for a dictator with an abysmal human rights record, essentially condoning a government with excessive isolationist and repressive policies.
Freedom House ranked Turkmenistan last in its 2013 Global Press Freedom Rankings, sharing the designation with North Korea. Freedom House also included Turkmenistan among the “worst of the worst” with respect to political rights and civil liberties. The International Commission on Religious Freedom named Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” for its “egregious religious freedom violations.” Turkmenistan used to have an exit visa regime, violating the right to emigrate. Although exit visas were officially abolished in 2002, there remains in practice an extensive black list that effectively operates to bar certain individuals from leaving Turkmenistan.
I am working with an organization that supports the educational aspirations of Turkmen students. Last year, students and their parents were harassed for trying to take free English classes we offered. Our teachers and staff were threatened. Four years ago, students trying to leave Turkmenistan to attend college on scholarships we provided were forcibly removed from their flights and prevented from leaving the country for nearly a year. One student was “escorted” off six different flights as she desperately tried to get back to school.
Needless to say, J-Lo’s birthday show was a slap in the face for those of us who have been struggling to support Turkmen students and their dreams for a better life. We know that education is the answer to making change in Turkmenistan. When we see U.S. celebrities taking money from governments who rule by repression and fear, it’s like the American dream has died a little.
There is a way forward here. Jennifer Lopez could make the right decision and donate her alleged $1.5 million performance fee back to organizations working for positive change in Turkmenistan. True, she has apologized, and the publicity relating to this concert has raised good awareness about the problems in Turkmenistan. But for J-Lo to really make amends for supporting a government that would never have given “Jenny from the Block” a chance, she needs to put actions behind her words.