The Soviet-era practice of forcing people to take out subscriptions to state-run newspapers is alive and well in my part of Kazakstan. It is completely out of place in a country that embraced free market economics more than two decades ago. As well as infringing on freedom of information, it is a consumer rights violation and it undermines fair competition.
The drive to get public-sector employees – a generally low-paid section of society – to sign up for next year’s subscriptions is already well under way in the southern Jambyl region.
“Local officials lobby by sending out letters and instructing public organisations… which newspapers they should subscribe to,” a university lecturer who wished to remain anonymous said. “Otherwise, they might end up on the blacklist and get into trouble with the regional administration.”
The lecturer said local government supported state-run newspapers both as a way of influencing public opinion and because it meant the funding these outlets received from the central authorities would continue.
National government wants to turn state-run media companies into self-financing entities, but without completely losing control over them. A 2010 law on state property was adopted with this strategy in mind. It envisages partial privatisation in which at least 50 per cent of shares must be offered for sale to private buyers.
Jambyl is one of the few exceptions among Kazakstan’s 14 regions. Media outlets here that on paper, have been turned into limited companies, continue to be fully funded by public money. The local authorities appear resistant to the government’s privatisation effort, preferring instead to rely on the tried-and-tested method of compulsory subscriptions as a source of income, rather than trying to win over readers by offering them an attractive product, as privately-run media outlets do.
Despite their official status as limited companies, these media outlets have made no efforts to sell shares or generate commercial. In addition to the proceeds from subscriptions, they get public money to cover rent, transport costs and staff salaries, and are frequently awarded contracts to do PR work for government agencies.
The Jambyl branch of the government’s anti-monopoly agency says it has been issuing privatisation orders for these newspapers since 2011. But it has no powers to enforce these orders or penalise companies for inaction. Nor is there anything in the law that specifically bans forced subscriptions.
The organisation I represent, the Association of Media Workers, is attempting to focus official attention on these issues.
When our association and the Novy Region newspaper held a discussion meeting about the problem on September 17, Inna Podlesnaya, representing the teachers’ trade union described how school administrator distributed a list of the papers to which staff were required to subscribe.
Other public-sector employees are similarly targeted. Saltanat Jailau, from the regional tax office, complained that she and her colleagues were forced to pay for newspapers they were not interested in reading.
Dauyl Beisenkulov, deputy head of the internal policy department in Jambyl’s regional administration, said officials recognised the need to privatise newspapers but added that this should not be done “in haste”, in case they went bankrupt.
He also frankly admitted that the authorities did not want to “lose influence over public opinion”.
Although the subscription policy is widely disliked, few public figures are willing to say so openly.
When my association contacted the editors-in-chief of state-run newspapers in Jambyl, some skirted the issue by pointing out that no one could be legally forced into subscribing, while other others declined to comment. Only one editor, Biket Mamynkulov of the Znamya Truda paper, admitted that if it was run as a business, circulation would fall. But Mamynkulov added that his newspaper had a core readership on which it could build if it genuinely went private.
This system of forcing people to subsidise state media needs to stop. Public-sector employers should not be forced to pay for newspapers favoured by the authorities. Competition rules should be applied fairly and equally. People should have the right to choose freely what they actually want to read.
Alexei Mirzoev is a member of the Association of Media Workers in Jambyl region, Kazakstan.